After a spate of powerful documentaries about the Iraq war, the season of the middlebrow, prestige Iraq feature is upon us, including next month's Lions for Lambs, In the Valley of Elah and now Gavin Hood's Rendition. If, for some reason, you have missed the boat and failed to feel bad about the lingering American presence in Iraq, these new narrative films are here to hold your hand and lead you into guilt-racked pain.
Rendition begins with the War on Terror essentially coming home to roost. Returning from a business trip in South Africa, Egyptian-born Chicago soccer daddy Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) is spirited away from the airport by CIA agents. The men in black suspect he has something to do with a suicide bombing in Africa, so they take him to that continent under the U.S. policy of "rendition," in which suspected terrorists can be flown outside the country, the better to "extract" information.
Anwar's pregnant wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) does her part as the wife left on the home front, pestering a senator's aide and school chum (Peter Sarsgaard) to use his connections to release her husband. Meanwhile, somewhere in the bowels of Africa, Anwar receives the Abu Ghraib treatment, as a morally divided, green CIA agent (Jake Gyllenhaal) looks on. Anwar's less conflicted tormentor is a local police chief (Igal Naor) with a contrived rationale for his rage: His teenage daughter has run off with a suicide bomber.
Borrowing a trick or two from Syriana, Rendition is a barely tolerable narrative masquerading as an important film. Full of fire and brimstone, but shockingly lifeless in its effect, this politically correct pudding strives to do everything right in addressing American bad behavior regarding torture.
Cross-cutting between Africa and Washington, the film tries to equalize and humanize, showing that people have lives and feelings on both side of the terrorism debate. Hood, director of Tsotsi, hits all the marks: actorly blowouts, pruney Washington bureaucrats, disgust at waterboarding, etc. But Hood has produced a very calculated and superficial drama whose vanilla-streaked, unimaginative topicality becomes more and more aggravating as the film grinds on.
Rendition. 2 stars. Directed by Gavin Hood. Stars Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal. Rated R. Opens Fri., Oct. 19. At area theaters.