RENDITION takes a subject worth a stark examination and turns it into a long, rambling, and unexpectedly dull tale unredeemed by its good intentions, its twist at the end or Meryl Streep as the prissy and persnickety CIA rendition-meister. It takes a great deal of effort to make that combination fail and this earnest effort has nothing else of note beyond it.
The rendition of the title is of the extreme variety, begun under Clinton and involving the removal of suspected terrorists to overseas venues where interrogation techniques involving torture are allowed. The point is to extract information while skirting the letter of that pesky part of the Constitution that disallows cruel and unusual punishment. The audience learns all about its history and practice during one of the many expository interludes the film has to offer. It is Peter Sarsgaard as a senatorial aide delivering the speech to Reese Witherspoon, who plays the heavily pregnant wife of an Egyptian national who has gone missing under suspicious circumstances. That it is delivered as the two stroll along the Potomac with the monuments of Washington D.C. in the background is emblematic of all that is wrong with this film. There is no subtlety, no nuance, and nothing approaching dramatic tension. The audience is there to have a lesson hammered into its collective consciousness and is asked to do nothing more than soak it all up the way first-graders are asked to soak up the multiplication tables by rote.
The rendition-ee is Anwar (Omar Metwally), who has lived in the United States since he was a kind and who boasts a green card and an affluent life. Unfortunately, he is also a chemical engineer and the recipient of a call to his cell phone from a suspect source while he is at a conference in South Africa. With surgical precision, he is snatched from a group of arriving passengers when he lands in the United States, his luggage is seized and his name removed from the passenger manifest. His story of water-boarding and electrical shocks is intercut with those of the difficult romance of the local CIA honcho (Jake Gyllenhaal), elevated to his post because of the suicide bombing that triggers the rendition, and that of the local police chief’s daughter. The CIA honcho is messing around with a local who works in his office in an unnamed North African country, and the daughter is rebelling against the choice of husband her father has made for her. Neither has much fire to them, and the sense of overkill stretched wafer thin is inevitable with the cutting back and forth from their stories to the one back in the States as Witherspoon, who has never looked more waifish, tries to get a straight answer to where her husband is and why he is there instead of at home. If only it led somewhere, but no. The denouement is as perfunctory as it is cloyingly cliché. The most unexpected moment comes when Gyllenhaal, wracked with guilt over the torture he has been witnessing, drowns his sorrows at a local watering hole by indulging in hookahs and a belly dancer.
The arc of every character is telegraphed from their first moment on screen. Ditto the story arc, from the close-up of a water-boarding in progress, to the emotional confrontation between Streep and Witherspoon’s characters. An issue that springs from collective fear and the baser instincts it engenders deserves a better, more intelligent, and more perceptive treatment than the trite platitudes RENDITION offers.