Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) finishes a business conference in Johannesburg. As he gets in the cab for the airport, he realizes he missed a call on his cell phone from a private number. He calls his pregnant wife, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon), back in Chicago, who is playing a game of soccer with their son. Anwar's flight lands in Washington, DC, where he is scheduled to change planes, before arriving back home in Chicago. In Washington, DC, CIA Director Corinne Whitman (Meryl Streep) orders her people to grab Anwar as he changes planes; they suspect he may have ties to a terrorist who bombed a crowded square in a northern African country. After a few moments of interrogation, Anwar is shipped to the North African country where he is interrogated and tortured by the chief of police, Abasi Fawal (Yigal Naor) on behalf of the CIA. A new CIA administrator, Douglas Freeman (Jake Gylenhaal) finds himself thrust into the role of interrogator when the interrogator is killed in the square bombing. There isn't time to find a replacement, so Douglas has to take over. When Isabella realizes her husband has vanished, she turns to an old school friend, Alan Smith (Peter Saarsgard) who works in the office of Senator Hawkins (Alan Arkin) to see if he can help.
"Rendition", written by Kelly Sane and directed by Gavin Hood (Academy Award Winner "Tsotsi"), wants to expose and dramatize a practice our country seems to be involved in, a practice we are learning more and more about. The film does cast a light on this murky area of our political engine, but it doesn't fully engage the audience in the characters and is weakened because of this. I don't think "Rendition" is powerful enough to get people to act.
Meryl Streep is one of our greatest actresses and I would pay to watch her read the phone book. When I was describing this film to a co-worker, I brought up "Out of Africa" and the co-worker started to criticize Streep's performance as Issak Dinesen. I almost got into a fistfight when she made a comment about Streep's 'fake accent'. Streep always makes any film she appears in better - good or bad, films benefit from the actresses ability to make a character come alive and her oft-noted ability to portray accents. Naturally, every performance is different and some work better than others. But they are all, at the very least, good. In "Rendition", she plays Whitman, the steely director of the CIA. She receives a call in the middle of the night; a bombing in a busy square in a North African country has killed one of their special interrogators. At the same time, they are tracking Anwar on his flight from South Africa. She instantly orders the suspect to be captured when he switches planes at Dulles. She wants him interrogated. When they can reach no conclusive answers and she is running out of time to hold him, she has him shipped back to the same North African country for interrogation. She is convinced she knows something.
The scariest thing about Streep's character is her conviction she knows what she is doing is right. She never doubts it. For a minute. So when she is confronted by the man's wife, Isabella (Witherspoon), she calmly and coolly tells the young mother that she is sorry for the woman's trouble, but she knows nothing. She manages to almost convince us and we know differently.
Her character also has more than a little depth. When the phone call wakes her up in the middle of the night, she calms her husband (Bob Gunton) much like a parent would a child. He dutifully appears at her side at a black tie event. These moments help to show Corrine has a personal life, making her more than simply a "villain".
Reese Witherspoon is good as Isabella. Naturally distraught, she tries to find out the truth about her husband, while caring for their young son and their unborn child. She turns to a friend (Peter Saarsgard) who works in a Senator's office for help after she learns that her husband got on the flight in South Africa but somehow never got off the flight at Dulles Airport. She finds credit card charges he made on the plane and then turns to the Senator's aide for help. As doors are continuously slammed in her face, she becomes more and more worried and more and more desperate.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Douglas Freeman, a new recruit for the CIA. Hired on as an Administrator, he quickly adjusts to life in the North African country, his new post. But the death of the agent who will be their new interrogator affects him and he is even more shocked to learn he will be taking the deceased man's place. When Nawal takes over the interrogation of Anwar, Douglas must watch the excessive techniques, challenging his convictions. He soon forms an opinion of the man's guilt or innocence and decides to act. This role is interesting, but I'm not sure it achieves the intended result. I feel we are supposed to see the futility of the actions through Douglas' eyes - He certainly doesn't like what they are doing, but he takes a long time to act, making the character a bit unsuccessful.
Gyllenhaal has a few nice moments with the character. When his colleague dies, it clearly affects him. He is covered with the man's blood and has to take care of some business before he can even remove the shirt. After he does, we see his hands shake a bit as he goes through shock.
Peter Saarsgard is good as Alan Smith, the Senator's aide, but his character gives up too easy. He is very determined to help Isabella, and even has the Senator's (Alan Arkin) ear for a while, but when Whitman gets to the Senator, everything changes and Peter is warned to stay away. If he believes in Anwar's innocence, why doesn't he fight more? If he doesn't believe in Anwar's case, why does he fight at all? Due to his past relationship with Isabella?
The biggest problem with "Rendition" deals with the narrative. As we flip back and forth between the various characters, we also follow the story of Nawal's headstrong teenaged daughter, Fatima. Nawal doesn't want her to see a new boyfriend, Khalid, so she runs away, to live with him. As Nawal continues to search for her, we see the interrogation of Anwar and also the story of Fatima and Khalid's growing love. As they become more involved, Khalid takes her to a student demonstration and introduces her to some of his friends, friends who would rather remain anonymous. Nawal continues to try to find her, but has little luck. This story dovetails into the rest of the narrative, with the help of a sloppy device, and doesn't seem to do anything other than detract from the rest of the story.
We are supposed to see a parallel between Fatima and Khalid and the interrogation of Anwar, but beyond the obvious, there really isn't any.
Because of the large handful of characters we follow through the course of the film, each is equivalent to a supporting character. Supporting characters have less time on screen, less time to make us believe in their character and less time to make us really care for their character. Because we don't feel a strong bond or connection to Isabella or Anwar, his torture doesn't have the impact on us it should.
"Rendition" is good, but it isn't the film that will move us to take action.