WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Egyptian-born American chemical engineer Anwar (Omar Metwally) is on his way home from a conference in South Africa. His wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) and their young son are waiting at the airport, but he never arrives. Odd, since he boarded in South Africa, but doesn’t seem to arrive back home in the US.
Homeland Security had their eyes on him, as his mobile phone records appeared to show that he’d been speaking to an Islamic terrorist involved in a recent bomb attack.
Before he’s cleared customs, the CIA whisks him off and sends him to a friendly Arab country where local officials question him – using force where they deem necessary – to try to get information about the terrorist cell behind the latest deaths.
Back home, Isabella secures the help of a former boyfriend, Alan (Peter Sarsgaard), who now works for a senator (Alan Arkin) to lobby for her husband’s return, but CIA boss Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep) denies any knowledge of his whereabouts.
WHAT’S IT LIKE?
This is one of a string of current films – from the recent Kingdom to the upcoming Lions for Lambs – to turn its attention to the war against terrorism, in one form or another.
As its title suggests, this tackles the controversial issue of “extraordinary rendition” where terrorism suspects are kidnapped, taken to third-party countries and tortured for information. The CIA, of course, denies this happens.
This film looks as much at those directly involved – whether victims or perpetrators – as it does those left behind – the wife and child.
Some of the “perpetrators,” such as new CIA recruit Douglas (Jake Gyllenhaal), don’t feel at all comfortable with what’s going on. Others, such as Streep’s Whitman, are absolutely convinced that it’s acceptable to torture one man if it saves thousands of lives by preventing a terrorist attack.
The problem in reality is whether you have the right guy – and the problem with this film is that this isn’t really addressed. People who support the idea of rendition – and tough questioning techniques – will leave thinking that he’s probably guilty, as the evidence points that way. But we’re not told for sure, one way or the other, so opponents of the war on terrorism will see the film as a justification of their allegations of American brutality.
The film tackles a brave subject, but balances precariously on the fence and doesn’t have the guts to make its point. It has big ambitions, but wimps out at the end.
Worse than this, from a film-making point of view, the director fractures the time-line unnecessarily. In films like Memento, this is essential to the plot. In others, such as Babel, it provides an interesting twist that puts the rest of the action in perspective. But here, when you see what he’s done, you feel like you’ve been cheated – and he hasn’t even gained anything by it – it neither makes the film more exciting nor interesting.