"Did we polygraph the Egyptian?"
"He came up clean."
"Polygraph doesn't mean diddly."
'We always say that when they pass."
"Put him on the plane. ..."
That exchange comes early in Gavin Hood's new film Rendition, between senior intelligence officer Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep) and her underling (J.K. Simmons). 'The Egyptian' is Anwar El-Abrahimi (Omar Metwally), a chemical engineer of Egyptian descent who's been living in Chicago for years, with a wife (Reese Witherspoon) and son and another baby on the way. But Whitman doesn't care about that; Anwar's phone has been receiving calls from a number linked to a known terrorist, so after a conference which sees him flying back to Chicago he's plucked from his flight, hooded and bound and taken to an unnamed North African country, where the head of the local intelligence branch, Abasi (Igal Naor), will try to crack him. CIA field paper-pusher Doug Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is there to observe, not to apply the electric shocks or pour the water until Anwar can't breathe or hurl him naked and shivering into a too-small cell -- because, hey, America doesn't do that stuff. But, through the Clinton-created, Bush-approved invention of 'Extraordinary Rendition," we can ask other people to do it, and pay them to do it, and make all the arrangements to have it happen. ... Anwar's suffering will stop when he tells what he knows. But what if he doesn't know anything?
And so Rendition flows, skipping between stories and continents and shades of the truth. We see Witherspoon's search to find out what happened to her husband, a hunt so desperate she's forced into hounding an ex-lover (Peter Sarsgaard) who works in a Senate office. We watch Abasi and Freeman working Anwar, trying to make him relinquish facts he may not even have. And we also watch Abasi's daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach) reach out to change her life through the love of a radical-leaning student, Khalid (Moa Khouas). Everyone has secrets, and no one is without sin.
Hood' s direction globe-trots with a spring in its step, and he's got a handle on action, too. The cast is uniformly fine -- Witherspoon loving and worried, Gyllenhaal passionate yet conflicted, Naor civilized but cruel. There's some excellent supporting work as well; Alan Arkin plays Sarsgaard's Senator boss with gruff doses of realpolitik, and Metwally suffers and squirms and still keeps us guessing. The Khalid-Fatima relationship works, too, and Oukach and Khouas actually do some of the finer acting in the film below the glare of the star-studded cast. Rendition feels like a weird hybrid of styles -- it has all of the trappings and airs of the modern techno-thriller (right down to the titles in the lower right-hand corner of the screen explaining where the film is) but it's got all the emotional scenes and longing-driven moments of a relationship drama. This sounds like a very bad pitch -- "It's Black Hawk Down meets Not Without My Daughter!" -- but Hood, and screenwriter Kelley Sane, keep the film from being too glib or glossy.
Some critics are finding Rendition to be too little, too late, a condescending, lofty 'liberal' attitude about many well-made and well-intentioned films that always infuriates me; just because you read a New Yorker article about a subject three months ago doesn't mean that everyone's as informed as you are, or that it's not a problem anymore, not being done in your name and with your money. Rendition doesn't suggest we live in a safe world, but Rendition also makes it abundantly clear that in a struggle against terrorist criminals, bad police work is almost worse than no police work at all. Rendition also has a too-happy ending -- and the familiar big movie moment where the only thing that can save us from the excesses of American Intelligence is American Intelligence -- but you feel the struggle to get to that point, and no one comes out unscathed. Rendition's not perfect, but it does convey one important lesson very well: Anytime someone tells you that you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs, immediately demand to see the omelet.