(director: Gavin Hood; screenwriter: Kelley Sane; cinematographer: Dion Beebe; editor: Megan Gill; music: Paul Hepker/Mark Kilian; cast: Reese Witherspoon (Isabella El-Ibrahimi), Jake Gyllenhaal (Douglas Freeman), Peter Sarsgaard (Alan Smith), Alan Arkin (Sen. Hawkins), Meryl Streep (Corrinne Whitman), J.K. Simmons (Lee Mayer), Omar Metwally (Anwar El-Ibrahimi), David Fabrizio (William Dixon); Runtime: 120; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Steve Golin/Marcus Viscidi; New Line Cinema; 2007-USA/South Africa)

“Deserves to be commended for just being made.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

South African Gavin Hood (“Tsotsi”), a lawyer before his movie career, helms a relevant old-fashioned social issues political thriller about the questionable morality of America’s War on Terrorism, that in practice allows for secret torture in its interrogation of suspects. It’s given a liberal twist by screenwriter Kelley Sane; and though well-meaning, timely and level-headed in its storytelling, the film’s main problems are that it’s ham-fisted, awkwardly executed, and unpersuasive. Its in your face political outrage and wake-up call to Americans doesn’t quite come together as a dramatically successful movie. It’s never moving nor does it ever get off the dime to reach our hearts. It deals with a legal (established in the President Clinton administration) clandestine practice of transferring uncharged terror suspects to countries known to use torture in their interrogation methods and turning a blind eye as the suspects are questioned by them. This policy goes by the name of “extraordinary rendition,” and is probably not known by as many Americans as should know about such a grievous policy that actually legitimizes torture in such an underhanded way.

The main plot involves the disappearance of a high-paid Egyptian-American chemical engineer, Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), on a flight from South Africa to Washington. Anwar was born in Egypt but raised in America since the age of 14 and though not a citizen has a green card for his work. He lives in Chicago with his pregnant American wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) and their six-year-old soccer playing son. Anwar is returning from a business conference trip to Capetown when he’s taken into custody and questioned by the CIA without given a chance to contact his wife or a lawyer or inform anyone that he’s being held. The operatives suspect that he might have connections to a known Egyptian terrorist. Not satisfied with his answers, the Southern accented brassy CIA operative, Corrinne Whitman (Meryl Streep), who heads the “rendition” program, orders him flown to an unnamed North African country with a bag over his head. There he is placed in a dark dungeon to be stripped, water-boarded and electrocuted. While tortured he’s being grilled by the menacing bald headed chief of the secret-police, Abasi Fawal (Igal Naor), who believes that the suspect knows the people behind a recent bombing that killed a newly arrived case officer for the CIA, Dixon, and 19 pedestrians in a public square in his country. The only evidence is a few phone calls listed on Anwar’s cell phone records from the terrorist in Egypt suspected of being the mastermind behind the recent bombing. The only American observer during this interrogation is the youthful CIA analyst Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), a recent CIA appointee who was at the bombing scene. As the questioning progresses, Douglas is convinced the suspect is innocent and is turned off by Fawal’s use of torture. But he’s unable to stop it, as his CIA bosses in Washington want it continued.

Back in the States, Isabella is unable to find out why hubby is missing and seeks help from her former boyfriend, Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard), who now works on the staff of Senator Hawkins (Alan Arkin). Smith gives it the good ole college try but is stonewalled at every turn by either Whitman or the crusty senator, a critic of the presidential administration’s secretive methods but who fails to listen to his aide because he’s worried what if the suspect is a terrorist.

It’s the kind of film where every character is a prop and takes a one-dimensional position, and that’s about as far their acting goes. There is an underlying story about the North African interrogator’s teenaged daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach) in a forbidden love affair with a lower-class boy named Khalid (Moa Khouas), who has joined a jihadist group to avenge the death of his brother who died while being tortured by his girlfriend’s father. From those scenes, that veer back and forth from the prison to Washington, we learn that the suicide-bomb attack was meant to take out Fawal.

Streep’s performance as the dragon-lady, a firm believer she’s doing good work and saving lives, is contrasted with the callow character played by Gyllenhaal, who has a rude awakening that torture is not only morally wrong but it doesn’t work. In the end, both sides are unflappable in their belief that they are right and are ready to go to the mat for it.

Despite its sketchily drawn characters, flat storytelling and many other faults, the sensitive political drama is a big budget Hollywood mainstream film that touches on something that’s gone wrong in America that makes a mockery of the laws granted by the Founding Fathers that call for due process and it deserves to be commended for just being made. It’s only too bad it wasn’t made better, but if someone really wanted to see the horrors of approving a policy of torture, there’s enough in this pic to go that route–even if it won’t score too many points for being too subtle.

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REVIEWED ON 10/20/2007 GRADE: B-