Rendition

All the ingredients for a timely, provocative political thriller are evident in “Rendition,” except for a guiding intelligence and skillful approach to fulfill the potential of this emotionally riveting 9/11 saga.

As a follow-up to South African helmer Gavin Hood's “Tsotsi,” which won the Best Foreign-Language Oscar in 2005, “Rendition is a disappointing and most peculiar film. One of the year's best-cast pictures, it stars three Oscar winners, Reese Witherspoon, Meryl Streep, and Alan Arkin, Oscar nominee Jake Gyllenhaal, and respected thespian Peter Sarsgaard, yet it doesn't take advantage of its high-profile ensemble, resulting in lukewarm performances from all of the above, including Streep.

World-premiering at the Toronto Film Festival, where Gavin Hood won the Audience Award for “Tsotsi,” the troubled “Rendition” will be released by New Line October 19. Studio's marketing faces uphill battle not just because of the many upcoming movies about 9/11, but also due to mixed critical response at Toronto, a divisive pattern likely to repeat itself when the picture opens wide theatrically.

Context-wise, as an expose of the positive and negative implications of the post-9/11 Patriotic Act, “Rendition” may be a bit late, since the origins of its explosive ideas go back to the Clinton administration and early years of President Bush.

As the first film about the controversial concept of rendition, Hood's movie is frustrating, too. Though flaunting an epic-scale, multi-layered geopolitical saga like “Traffic,” “Syriana,” and the Oscar-winner “Crash,” the film is too diffuse and rambling to bring all its characters and subplots into something more poignant and coherent. End result is a thematically intriguing, but artistically and technically flawed film, in which individual scenes are stronger, more resonant than the whole.

The first reel is quite intriguing, showing “Rendition” as a politically relevant, daring film that isnt afraid to ask tough questions about U.S. foreign and domestic policies in the post 9/11 era. Ambitious to a fault, the narrative tries to be a chronicle of a whole world in state of crisis yet remain intimate enough in its focus on one interracial family in peril. This is yet another problem: the personal-familial and the larger political-global domain remain separate, or barely linked, up until the very last reel.

Feature's nominal protagonist is Anwar El-Ibraim (Omar Metwally), a scientist of Egyptian decent. Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, he is about to find out what happens when that line is crossed. Anwar is anxious to get home and see his family after a business trip abroad. Unfortunately, his homecoming is delayed.

Cut to his pregnant wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) and their six-year-old boy, playing ball, while eagerly awaiting for Anwar's return. The two live with Anwar's understanding mother. When they don't get the expected call from Anawar, they simply show up at the airport, only to discover that he is not there.

Cut to another part of the world, Cairo, where a suicide bomb has just rocked the heavily populated Sadat Plaza. Thirty-six men are dead, one of them American. When Rashid Silime, a well-known terrorist and head of the El-Hazim Brigage, a Hezbollah splinter cell, claims responsibility, restitution is needed.

Within a matter of hours, Anwar's status changes from a respected, upscale businessman boarding a plane home, to a suspect-terrorist when he lands in the U.S. Right off the plane, Anwar is bound, hooded and taken away. He's then stripped naked and placed in a tiny, barren Cairo cell.

After a whole hour of covering the disparate characters, their doings and whereabouts, we learn that Anwar is the subject of Extraordinary Rendition, a program that authorizes the U.S. government to seize and transfer terrorism suspects to their countries of origin, where they can be interrogated without legal protections or restraints. Here, the CIA's only hard evidence consists of a record of some telephone calls made from the terrorist to Anwar's cell, which the latter vehemently denies.

While tortured by the authorities, it's revealed that Anwar is a biochemist with some bomb-making experience and family ties to the Middle East. Born in Egypt, he left the country at age 14 and has since lived and went to school in the West. While having a Green Card, he is not a U.S. citizen yet.

In the outside world, there is no trace of Anwar. The airline claims Anwar was never on the plane, and immigration has no record of his arrival in the U.S. In desperation, wife Isabella turns to the only man she can trust, Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard), an old school sweetheart and Washington insider who works for a high-powered senator (Alan Arkin). Jointly, they try to piece together Anwar's mysterious disappearance. In due course, Isabella produces evidence of a duty-free purchase Anwar had made during his flight,

Enter Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), a National Security Agent stationed in Cairo, who has just been assigned by his harsh boss (played by J.K. Simmons) to oversee Anwars rendition by a high-official Egyptian. Later on, when Douglas claims, “It's my first torture,” which no one likes to hear, and he's told by his vet superiors: “The U.S. never tortures.” Unlike the rest of his colleagues, however, Douglas isnt convinced that Anwar had anything to do with bombing, nor does he believe Anwar will survive what his brutal interrogation.

“Rendition” walks a fine line between “legit” interrogation and ruthless torture, between working for a greater, collective cause in post 9/11 and violating basic codes of decency. This becomes clear in a cynical, sobering speech delivered by CIA officer Corinne Whitman (Streep), saying that security-wise, it's better to err in one case than risk the lives of hundred of innocent civilians; she uses the recent London terrorist bombings as an example. Whitman, unremorseful and unapproachable, ends her speech to Smith by saying, “Go home and have a good sleep,” implying that without the government's efforts, good or bad, moral or immoral, we could never achieve peace of mind, not even in our sleep.

In the second half, Douglas assumes a more central role and becomes the feature's one sympathetic hero. During the fist, long hour, it's hard to tell whose story we see and who is the moral, or any, center. Driven by conflicting forces of duty and conscience, loyalty and morality, Douglas must ultimately make a choice that propels “Rendition” to its inevitable, but unrealistic conclusion.

Like Steven Gaghan's “Syriana” and Paul Greengrass' franchise, “Bourne Identity,” “Rendition” wants to be a taut entertaining political thriller, but also a cautionary tale about human rights at the current tumultuous times. Unfortunately as written by Kelley Sane, “Rendition” neither works as a reworking of the Hitchcockian paradigm of “The Innocent Man, Wrongly Accused,” nor as an in-depth expose of the concept of Rendition.

Things are made worse by the unexciting, occasionally static direction of Gavin Hood, who fails to give his episodic yarn a more unified feel. The plot relies too much on phone and cell calls, which are inherently undramatic acts; though Anwar is not allowed to make a single call home or to his lawyer.

Too bad that New Line has no time to send the picture back to the editing room, for the cutting and pacing are particularly problematic. Most of the scenes are extremely brief, with barely snippets of dialogue (mostly one-liners), which means that the actors, pros as they all are, can't develop any significant or in-depth characterization; except for Douglas, they are mostly plot functions.

It also means that we the viewers, despite being exposed to incendiary issues that affect our everyday lives, can't get emotionally involved in the tale. Again showing penchant for sentimentality that's borderline schmaltzy, Hood often cuts abruptly important sequences, switching the action to trivial love-making scenes (at the wrong time and place) and to redundant montages of reaction shots of the characters at the same time.

Gyllenhaal, who was so right in “Brokeback Mountain,” may be too young (and miscast) as the CIA analyst whose partner was killed in the bomb blast. Hood has Douglas spend half of his screen time passively standing and observing the torment, or brooding to himself, before he finally decides to take action.

Witherspoon has nothing interesting to say or to do, and her explosive scene in the corridor”I want to know where my husband is”comes too late and is too hysterical and brief to leave any imprint. Sporting Southern accent, Meryl Streep as the CIA officer who approves Anwar's deportation, is no more than O.K.; she was far better in Demme's paranoid thriller, The Manchurian Candidate.” Sarsgaard is the only American who shows some conviction in his role, particularly in his encounters with Alan Arkin and Streep, which, dramatically, are the strongest in the film.

The actors who play the Arabic characters leave stronger impression than their American counterparts. Omar Metwally shines, rendering an emotionally touching performance as the tortured family man. Israeli thespian Yigal Naor is also good as the uncompromising tormentor. Equally effective are the young Egyptian lovers, who play a crucial role in the story, linked to more than one of the major characters, but their specific parts can't be disclosed here.

The very last two scenes achieve the forceful and emotional tones that the whole film should (and could) have had were it better conceptualized, helmed, and edited. Too bad that “Rendition” is a missed opportunity to deal with the hot-button issue of how the U.S. government continues to use 9/11, the Iraq war, and war on terrorism to justify decidedly questionable activities, like the indiscriminate torture of those suspected of terrorism.

Cast

Douglas Freeman – Jake Gyllenhaal
Isabella El-Ibrahimi – Reese Witherspoon
Senator Hawkins – Alan Arkin
Alan Smith – Peter Sarsgaard
Anwar El-Ibrahimi – Omar Metwally
Abasi Fawal – Igal Naor
Khalid – Moa Khouas
Fatima – Zineb Oukach
Corrinne Whitman – Meryl Streep

credits

A New Line Cinema release, presented in association with Level 1 Entertainment of an Anonymous Content production.
Produced by Steve Golin, Marcus Viscidi. Executive producers: Toby Emmerich, Keith Goldberg, David Kanter, Keith Redman, Michael Sugar, Edward Milstein, Bill Todman Jr., Paul Schwake.
Co-producer: Mark Martin.
Directed by Gavin Hood.
Screenplay: Kelley Sane.
Camera: Dion Beebe.
Editor: Megan Gill.
Music: Paul Hepker, Mark Kilian.
Production designer: Barry Robison.
Costume designer: Michael Wilkinson.
Sound: Nico Louw.

MPAA: R
Running time: 121 Minutes.