Rendition

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“Rendition” is a Very Important Movie that has a Very Important Point to make. And that point is this. Are you ready? Here it comes: Torture is bad.

Well, put away the nipple clamps and the car battery, because I am ALREADY SHOCKED! Much of the film toys with the idea that there may be gray areas in which the torture of suspected terrorist collaborators is useful, even necessary — and then it decides that no, there aren’t any such grays areas after all. I wish it had taken the more controversial position. I don’t know that I’d agree with that message, but at least it would be interesting for a movie to make it. Coming out against torture is like coming out against cancer.

That’s not to say “Rendition” is a bad movie, only that it’s not as relevant as it thinks it is. The characters and stories are compelling, and you can’t go wrong with the elite band of actors recruited by South African director Gavin Hood (“Tsotsi”) for his first American production. The journey is fine; it’s the destination that’s a little pedestrian.

It begins with a suicide bombing in an unnamed North African city. A CIA agent is among the victims, though the real target was Abassi Fawal (Yigal Naor), a local government official who splits his time between being a devoted husband and father and being a ruthless interrogator of suspects.

A young CIA agent named Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) saw his colleague killed in the blast and is temporarily in charge of the local investigation efforts. Intelligence reports lead his office to Anwar El-Ibrahim (Omar Metwally), an Egyptian-born scientist with a U.S. green card and an American college degree. His cell phone records indicate conversations between him and the terrorist leader suspected in the bombing. Anwar has been lecturing in South Africa and is on his way home to Chicago when U.S. officials intercept him and transport him back to North Africa to be interrogated by Abassi Fawal under the CIA’s watch. The U.S. doesn’t torture people, you see. Fawal is the one doing the dirty work, and he’s not on the CIA’s payroll.

Back in Chicago, Anwar’s American wife, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon), is panicked by her husband’s disappearance, and especially by the airline’s insistence he was never on the flight to begin with. (This is because the CIA deleted his name from the passenger list.) She flies to Washington, where an old college boyfriend, Alan (Peter Sarsgaard), works for a U.S. senator. Her request that he ask his boss to look into Anwar’s disappearance leads to some uncomfortable questions. Senator Hawkins (Alan Arkin) is glad to go on record as being against this kind of under-the-table, civil-rights-evading practice — but not if there’s a chance Anwar might actually be guilty of something.

At the top of it all is Corinne Whitman (Meryl Streep), the vaguely Southern brass-balls woman who heads the CIA. She takes the position that if bending the usual laws saves lives by preventing terrorist attacks, it’s worth it. In a secretive meeting (in a parking garage, of course) with an underling played by J.K. Simmons, she’s informed that Anwar says he’s innocent and has passed a polygraph.

“Polygraphs don’t mean diddly,” she says.

“We only say that when they pass,” he responds with some amusement — until a withering glare from Whitman shuts him up again.

Meanwhile, Anwar is subjected to a variety of “interrogation” tactics aimed at getting him to confess his connections to the terrorist cell. Freeman, the CIA agent, a self-described “pencil pusher” who’s never seen any real action before, silently observes the sessions, half terrified and half intrigued. When he expresses his doubts about Anwar’s guilt on the phone to Whitman, she says, “You’re new to this, aren’t you?”

“This is my first torture, yes,” he says.

“The United States does not torture,” she snaps back, apparently unconcerned about the absurdity of saying this to a U.S. official who is currently overseeing a torture session.

Other characters mingle in the fringe of Kelley Sane’s sprawling screenplay, including Abassi Fawal’s rebellious daughter (Zineb Oukach) and her jihadist boyfriend (Moa Khouas), and the female CIA agent with whom Freeman has been secretly shacking up. Freeman also has contact with the local Minister of the Interior, a wise and friendly man who serves no particular function in the story. Back in Chicago, Anwar’s mother is staying with the family to help Isabella during her pregnancy. (But of course she is pregnant. That makes her role as the worried wife all the more dramatic.)

All the elements are here for something fantastic, but “Rendition” doesn’t coalesce the way it should. It never goes beneath the surface level: the pregnant, concerned wife, her noble, handsome Middle Eastern husband, the clean-cut do-gooder CIA agent, the slightly menacing CIA chief — it all feels a little too pat, too familiar, doesn’t it?

What’s more, Hood can barely keep a handle on all the locations and characters. The timelines are vague; one story seems to span only a few hours while another story, apparently occurring simultaneously, stretches for days. The fractured timeline proves to be intentional in one instance (I won’t say which), but the overall confusion seems to be out of sloppiness, not design.

I have no qualms with any of the performances, nor even with the film’s individual components. It’s the overall effect that’s lackluster, a film that’s good and decent but not as deep it wants to be.

B- (1 hr., 56 min.; R, some harsh profanity, some scenes of violence and torture, some incidental nudity.)

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