Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) is living the American dream. He went to NYU, found well-paying work as a chemical engineer, married his gorgeous college sweetheart, Isabella Fields (Reese Witherspoon), moved to the Chicago suburbs, and has one poster-worthy child with another on the way. There are just two problems: First, though he's lived in the States for 20 years, Anwar was born in Egypt; second, his cell phone has evidently been called on more than one occasion by a terrorist named Rashid. And so, returning home from a conference in South Africa, Anwar is approached by polite security officers at Reagan National Airport, who lead him through a doorway off the concourse where considerably less polite men in black face masks throw a sack over his head. He's shackled and interrogated briefly by a government bureaucrat (J.K. Simmons) before being tossed on a plane to North Africa and a dungeon-like detention facility where he is stripped, beaten, waterboarded, and electrocuted by a thuggish local security chief (Yigal Naor).
It's the unpleasant duty of the unsubtly named Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) to watch the whole process. A CIA analyst and self-described "pencil-pusher," he is asked to fill in for an agent of a less refined type (a "knuckle-dragger" in Freeman's parlance) when said agent is killed in a suicide bombing. One of the tasks this entails is observing Anwar's interrogation, which Freeman does with escalating disgust. Criticized over the phone by a superior (Meryl Streep), he explains truthfully, "This is my first torture." She replies, rather less truthfully, "The United States does not torture."
Meanwhile, back stateside, Isabella tries to determine what, exactly, has become of her husband. After accomplishing little over the telephone from Chicago, she drags her 8+-months-pregnant self to Washington, where she prevails upon an old flame (Peter Sarsgaard) who now works for a powerful Senator (Alan Arkin) to help her get her husband back.
These would seem to be the bones of a good movie. Instead, they are the bones of Rendition, a well-meaning but unwieldy mass of confused and conflicting narrative impulses. The film, by South African director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi), is technically solid and, as you'd expect given the quality of its cast, has powerful moments sprinkled here and there. But structurally it's a mess, and it gradually succumbs to flaws both small and large.
First, a quibble: Must Anwar really be so squeaky clean, with the bright smile and pretty, blonde, pregnant wife, and beautiful son, and no sign that he, or anyone he knows, has ever dreamed of anything but Mom and apple pie? About the only way in which Hood declines to stack the deck is to have Anwar on the verge of completing a cure for cancer when he is whisked away. Would the allowance that he had once attended a political rally or two, or had some radical family members back in Egypt, really have added too much gray to Hood's black-and-white palette?
A more serious failure of the film involves its central subject, Anwar's interrogation. The problem here is that Hood (and screenwriter Kelley Sane) offer us two competing monologues but no meaningful effort at dialogue, coerced or otherwise. The various interrogators declare that Anwar has gotten multiple cell phone calls from Rashid. Anwar says he's never spoken to the man, or even heard of him. The obvious next step would be for the interrogators to say, "Well then, who was it that you spoke to on your cell phone from 8:36 AM to 8:42 AM on the morning of April 6?" To which Anwar could reply (truthfully or not), "Oh, that was my Uncle Faris, asking if I could come to my cousin Fatin's wedding." Or maybe he'd say, "I didn't have my cell phone at all that week. I was at a conference in Madrid and had left it behind. Someone else must have been using it." Regardless, these would be data points the CIA could use to determine whether or not Anwar was indeed chatting with terrorists.