Late in Rendition, in case you've been blind and deaf enough not to have cottoned to the drift, a tense Washington exchange on the legitimacy of bundling dark-skinned Americans off to secret prisons abroad takes place. On one side is a driven young senatorial aide (Peter Sarsgaard); on the other, the CIA suit in charge of foreign operations (Meryl Streep, reprising The Devil Wears Prada in less alluring threads). He throws the Constitution at her; she invokes September 11 and argues that thousands of Londoners are safe because the West outsources terror interrogations to Middle Eastern powers allegedly less fastidious than we about the Geneva Convention. There's a genuinely uncomfortable discussion to be had here, not only about covert government violations of human and civil rights but, if you really want to push into queasy territory, whether it's possible to gain intelligence about terrorism without coercion.
But don't imagine that you'll find much beyond lip service to serious public debate in this slick thriller, directed by Gavin Hood from a hypermasculine debut screenplay by Kelley Sane. Like so many of its proliferating kind, Rendition is far more interested in playing the hydraulics of abduction and torture in exotic foreign parts for all they're worth.
Nothing if not torn from the headlines, the movie turns on the abduction of Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), a slender, sensitive Egyptian-American chemical engineer whose only good fortune for the duration is to be married to Reese Witherspoon, gamely trying to wring a little specificity from her waiting-wifey lines. Nabbed by muscled he-men at a stateside airport as he returns from a business trip to Cape Town, Anwar vanishes from the passenger list. We find him next—naked, shackled and manhandled in exhaustive detail by dusky fellows answering to a decidedly unsentimental prison chief (the versatile Israeli actor Igal Naor)—"somewhere in Northern Africa." Morocco, actually, but what does it matter? It all looks the same to Hollywood, with brilliant sunsets, narrow alleys teeming with trainee suicide bombers, satellite dishes and throbbing Arab dirges on the soundtrack.
As I write, the Supreme Court has upheld the Bush administration's invocation of state secrets to squelch the lawsuit of a German-Lebanese citizen seized and tortured by the CIA, who got him confused with a similarly named wanted terrorist. Rendition's plot hews shockingly close to that case, but the movie takes its cues less from life than from Syriana, whose mushrooming global subplots, parallel sequences and massive ensembles have set the kinetic template for a slew of movies (Munich, The Kingdom, with Brian De Palma's Redacted still to come) that have done more to revive the fatigued action genre than to shed light on America's gift for making Middle Eastern trouble worse. Unlike Syriana and Hood's equally propulsive but far more immediate gangster picture Tsotsi, which was set in his native South Africa, Rendition feels generic and lackluster, more devoted to its preening structural twist than to a tacked-on subplot designed to show that Islamist fundamentalists are people too. If the movie has a subject or a sensibility, it's American guilt, not only about allowing the erosion of civil rights at home, but about further fouling up the Wild West that is the Middle East.
Like so many movies of its kind, Rendition's guilt is tainted by the inevitable arrival, amid all the ugly-American careerists scurrying around Washington, of a good American to sort things out. Except that Jake Gyllenhaal, as the young novice deputed to supervise Anwar's interrogation, is such a glassy-eyed cipher that the only thing I could think of as he crept toward epiphany was, "God, Donnie Darko is turning into Christopher Walken."