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.
But the interrogators never ask about particular calls or times, so Anwar never has an opportunity to offer any explanation for them. The closest we ever get to a rationale for the calls is the sight of Anwar getting a dropped call from an unknown source at the beginning of the film. Were all the presumed terrorist calls wrong numbers? Would the CIA really have opted for extraordinary rendition even if there was no evidence that the two parties ever actually spoke? I suspect even Hood knew this would seem unduly far-fetched and so chose to avoid the (crucial, integral) subject altogether. Instead, he gives us the same scene over and over and over again, with only the means of torture altered: You've been talking to Rashid; I never heard of him. [Pow, gurgle, zap.] You've been talking to Rashid; I never heard of him ...
The result is a storyline that's essentially static. Had there been even a minimal give-and-take between interrogators and the interrogated, Gyllenhaal's erstwhile analyst might at least have had some leads to track down. Instead, he has little to do for the bulk of the film except to stand around looking glum, occasionally asking the torturer to go a little easier on Anwar, and getting drunk between sessions to confirm his self-loathing.
At least things are moving forward stateside, though, right? Sadly, no. After Witherspoon's Izzy flies from Chicago to D.C., she toddles around the Capitol, her blue eyes nearly as big as her pregnant tum, beseeching Sarsgaard's ambitious political staffer for a little help. He tries, he fails. (The scene in which Arkin's senator puts him in his place may be the best of the film.) When Sarsgaard's character recommends Izzy instead hire a high-powered Washington lawyer to help her apply political leverage, she (and the filmmakers) treat it as an idle brush-off, rather than as the useful advice it is. Remarkably, not a single thing Izzy does in the entire film has any meaningful consequence; had she stayed in Chicago the whole time, it wouldn't have altered anything else in the movie. Even more than Gyllenhaal's character, she's a spectator to a process she can do nothing to impede.
There's a third storyline as well, revolving around the security chief who tortures Anwar. His daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach) has left home and is seeing a boy, Khalid (Moa Khouas), who attends an extremist madrassa. At first, this story seems like little more than narrative window-dressing--a stab (like the similar plot arc in Syriana) at a kind of we-see-all-sides cosmopolitanism--but it gradually grows more and more central until it all but usurps the film. The movie's great culminating tragedy (which, in an irritatingly coy bit of surprise, out-of-sequence storytelling, is also its precipitating event) takes place in this subplot, and is only tangentially related to the travails of Anwar, Izzy, et al.
It's a truly odd development, and it's hard to know whether it is a symptom (wow, our main story is really inert; let's add another in which something actually happens) or cause (we'd love to give you more to do, Mr. Gyllenhaal, but it might get in the way of this other plot we've got going) of the film's other flaws. Regardless, the result is a movie ostensibly about American policy--the ethical perils of rendition, torture, secrecy, and unchecked power--that concludes with another moral altogether, that violence begets violence in the Middle East. It's a valid enough point, but probably not what viewers of a film entitled Rendition imagine they are paying to see.
This post originally appeared at TNR.com.