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October 24, 2007 > Rendition - A timely story that could be better

Rendition - A timely story that could be better

By Joe Samagond

"Rendition" gets its name from the law that allows our government to transport prisoners to foreign soil in order to question them without the constraints of the American legal system. Given that the topic is very much a current event, I went to see it, expecting a timely, well-intentioned but structurally flawed modern political drama with a clichˇd message. Director Gavin Hood makes his Hollywood debut after winning the foreign-language Oscar for the South African drama "Tsotsi" (2006), and does a fairly good job. However, there was a bit too much stereotyping at work.

When a suicide bomber strikes an unidentified North African city killing a CIA field worker, repercussions ripple around the world. Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) is on his way home to Chicago from a conference in Cape Town. Due to suspicious cell phone calls, he is arrested, interrogated and - under orders from a ruthless CIA official in Washington, Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep) - shipped off to the same North African city under a policy of "extraordinary rendition."

The death of the CIA field worker means an untrained analyst, Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), must step in to observe the local head of a secret prison, Abasi Fawal (Igal Naor), interrogate El-Ibrahimi. "This is my first torture," a shaken Freeman tells Whitman over the phone. She curtly repeats the current administration's talking point, "The United States does not torture." Freeman witnesses Anwar's torture but lets it continue. He drinks heavily to dull his sense of guilt. Fawal meanwhile has his own problems. His daughter, Fatima (Zineb Oukach), has been rebelling against him, spending unsupervised time with her boyfriend, Khalid (Moa Khouas), who has been hiding the depths of his Islamic fundamentalist beliefs from her.

Meanwhile, at home in Chicago, Isabella Fields El-Ibrahimi (Reese Witherspoon) calls upon a former college boyfriend, Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard), to help find her husband. Alan, an aide to a powerful senator (Alan Arkin), resists spending political capital on a case that could brand him a traitor. Having America's sweetheart waiting forlornly at an airport terminal to pick up her beloved husband - who happens to be nude, shackled and subjected to water torture while the CIA "observes" - is an extraordinarily clever way to raise your anger. Witherspoon is quietly fierce and righteous. Streep is stranded in one clichˇ after another. Sarsgaard gets some dimension. But Metwally is the standout performer as the hapless Anwar.

Only in the final reel, as the subplots wrap up a little too nicely (especially for anyone who reads the news), do the grit and urgency of "Rendition" begin to wane. The movie's insistent message about the morality and effectiveness of torture packs an unexpected and politically timely punch.

"Rendition" is rated R
Runtime: 122 minutes

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