If Paul Greengrass’s Bourne films are topical symphonies of destruction, call Gavin Hood’s Rendition their chamber-piece cousin — as compelling and thoughtful, just quieter and calmer.
Hood’s tale of torture in the war on terror isn’t a movie with a condemnation agenda, distant fingers pointed at a faraway problem or an oversimplification of interrogation technique. The ensemble piece evenhandedly shows all that torture takes away and builds up, with tricky chronology to evoke surprise and a solemn conclusion. It’s Syriana to scale, with parts snapped into place rather than scattered.
In other words, everything unexpected of a terrorism story with Reese Witherspoon. What? Her Egyptian-born husband is tortured in a foreign land on shaky suspicion of terrorist involvement? And she’s pregnant? Watch that type-A day saver knock down walls with her third-trimester belly!
Not even close. Rendition shows us Witherspoon in rare powerless form. Her Isabella El-Ibrahim patiently sits in a senator’s office and, when ignored, emits a bloodcurdling scream of emotional submission and despair.
Sure, Hood lacks the chutzpah to direct Alan Arkin or Meryl Streep toward anything other than effective variations on past characters; in Streep’s case, the devil wears an earpiece. But they’re given verbal daggers not to throw, but more menacingly hold to each other’s throats.
Hood also tweaks the typical points in a performance from Jake Gyllenhaal as Douglas Freeman. He’s a CIA analyst thrust into an interrogative assignment after a North African bomb blast leaves his superiors among the 19 dead.
At the same time, engineer Anwar El-Ibrahim (Omar Metwally) is en route to Chicago from a South Africa business trip. Evidence surfaces that the terrorist responsible called Anwar’s cell phone many times. Anwar is detained, bound, deleted from the manifesto and sent to a squalid cell.
Anwar is held on rendition, a real-life statute under which terrorism suspects can be held indeterminately in a third-party country without fear of judicial oversight. He’s there on the order of ironclad CIA director Christine Whitman (Streep, dripping dastardly connotation into every line).
With Freeman passively standing by as an overseer, local policeman Abassi Fawal (Yigal Naor) violently interrogates (read: tortures) Anwar. Is Anwar lying? Is his eventual confession the truth or just what Fawal, who was the bomb’s target, wants to hear? Fawal’s rage is spurred by his own problems, a teen daughter trying to escape an arranged-marriage situation by seeing another boy.
Meanwhile, Isabella calls on Allen (Peter Sarsgaard), an old flame and senator’s aide, for help. Just how running the black-ops playbook doesn’t include checking credit cards isn’t explained, but in-flight duty-free purchases prove Anwar was on the flight. Initially a bulldog, Allen eventually gets caught between political correctness and face-saving when confronted by his boss (Arkin).
With so much going on, Hood and writer Kelley Sane wisely choose a puzzle-box pace, with no big speeches or easy outs for any character. As Whitman says of Freeman, an analyst is not a jackal. He’s also not a lone wolf in waiting. Just because Freeman can’t be reasoned with on a business-as-usual argument, he’s also not swift to act on his anti-torture instinct. Gyllenhaal presents weary, cavernous expressions and a tongue that’s sharp, damning and, at times, funny.
Freeman’s actions are the most crucial to the plot, but the periphery is just as important. On both sides of the bomb blast, lives are irrevocably changed and ideology pushes people into impossible corners despite better natures and inclinations. It’s with that humanism that Rendition issues its own challenge to a glut of Mideast terrorism and war-related films this fall to elicit as much feeling.