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Movie Review

'Rendition' tackles terrorism -- and interrogation

Meryl Streep plays the head of the CIA's counterterrorism unit and Alan Arkin (right) a senator in the thriller 'Rendition.' Meryl Streep plays the head of the CIA's counterterrorism unit and Alan Arkin (right) a senator in the thriller "Rendition." (SAM EMERSON/NEW LINE CINEMA)

"Rendition" is a reminder that, in the wrong hands, political outrage can be a slog. The movie's title refers to extraordinary rendition, the clandestine government practice of transferring terror suspects to countries known to use torture in their interrogation methods. You can tell from that point-blank generic title that the movie wants to get all in your face. And it does.

The stars involved - Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Alan Arkin, and Meryl Streep - haven't simply made a film; they've signed a petition. But the petition they've signed is so single-mindedly concerned with throwing political punches that it fails as both a movie and an indictment.

Witherspoon plays Isabella el-Ibrahimi, a very pregnant soccer mom whose Egyptian-born chemical-engineer husband, Anwar (Omar Metwally), never makes it home from a conference in South Africa. Worried and desperate, she reaches out to Alan (Sarsgaard), the college boyfriend she left to be with Anwar. He works for a senator (Arkin) who may be able to bring attention to her mysterious case.

But we already see what's going on. Before he could make his connecting flight, Anwar has a bag thrown over his head and is whisked off to a dungeon prison in North Africa, where he'll be stripped, nearly drowned, electrocuted, deprived of his senses, and questioned for possible involvement in a terrorist bombing in a public square that killed a CIA bigwig, along with several passersby. Overseeing Anwar's internment are the intended object of the blast, Abasi Fawal (Yigal Naor), the bald and intimidating secret-police chief, and the boyish American CIA analyst (Gyllenhaal) who was at the scene of the blast and whose stomach will be turned by his co-interrogator's bad-cop routine.

Kelley Sane's overworked script goes out of its way to give us scenes of a rousing terrorist cell meeting and of Abasi's teenaged daughter, Fatima (Zineb Oukach), running around an unspecified North African city in forbidden love with a lower class boy named Khalid (Moa Khouas). You can bet they'll figure into the climax. And if you couldn't have predicted where this is headed, "Rendition" is the sort of picture where one character keeps Ye Olde telltale scrapbook that spells out to another character what's been going on.

Director Gavin Hood, a South African who won the 2006 foreign-film Oscar for "Tsotsi," keeps the movie operating at a decent pace. It's handsome, too. There's even a stab at art. At the last minute the movie is whipped into one of those fractured gourmet narratives like "Syriana" or "Babel." But the big twist only makes the film seem pretentious, not merely hyper-extended.

The actors have nothing to play except positions. When his character is not righteously quoting Shakespeare, Gyllenhaal gets to be woozy on a Tunisian veranda, loaded up on shots and a hookah. Poor Witherspoon is stuck playing pregnant, and mildly naïve. "He coaches Jeremy's soccer team for Christ's sake," Isabella tells Sarsgaard in her husband's defense; and later: "Classified? What does that mean?" as if she were starring in "Legally Blonde 3." This sweet woman would never marry a bad man - and her moment of uncertainty comes and goes in 30 seconds.

Even though the camera doesn't stint on what torture does to Anwar's wraith of a body, we never get a sense of him as a man. The many plot points are meant to make both the characters seem complicated and the central issue seem global, but the movie barely captures the psychological toll of its premise. These aren't characters, though, as much as props. At least twice, Isabella is photographed with the Capitol looming behind her - once she's even doubled over in a hallway. (It's also that kind of movie.)

As the interrogator, Naor is the one actor who manages to overcome the clichés, simplicity, and cheap symbolism and create a complicated portrait of ambivalence. He's very good. But "Rendition" is interesting mostly when Streep's Machiavellian counterterrorism puppetmaster is around ("Get him on the plane," she says about Anwar). Her accent is Southern and her MO is haughty parrying - with her husband, her underlings, Gyllenhaal, and, in the film's best scene (at a gala for orphans of the Rwandan genocide) Sarsgaard.

In a sense, "Rendition" perfectly captures the certitude on both sides of the debate about extra-legal interrogation. Everybody thinks they're right. Streep's character knows she is. She's playing a one-dimensional villain, but that one dimension is the single thing in this movie scary enough to keep you up at night.

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Directed by: Gavin Hood

Written by: Kelley Sane

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Yigal Naor, Peter Sarsgaard, Omar Metwally, Moa Khouas, Zineb Oukach, Alan Arkin, and Meryl Streep

At: Kendall Square, Cambridge

Running time: 120 minutes

Rated: R (torture/violence and language)