Gavin Hood's follow-up to his potent Oscar-nominated, post-apartheid crime drama TSOTSI (2005) is also a timely film about the consequences of injustice: In this case, it's the CIA's covert policy of "extraordinary rendition," by which suspected terrorists are snatched from foreign soil and secretly flown to a third country for interrogation and, possibly, torture.
En route to his Chicago home from a conference in South Africa, Egyptian-born chemical engineer Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) is unexpectedly stopped by security in Washington’s Dulles Airport, hustled into a small room and interrogated about the nature of his trip. Before he fully realizes what’s happening, Anwar is put aboard a luxury private jet bound for some unnamed North African country. He's not charged with any specific crime and is denied access to his lawyer and his family, and within hours of his "arrest," Anwar is being tortured in a dank secret prison for information regarding a recent suicide bombing. Anwar is beaten, electrocuted, nearly drowned and kept in a tiny, windowless cell no larger than a coffin — all under the horrified eye of CIA analyst Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), a relatively inexperienced agent who was handed the job when his predecessor died in the very same attack Anwar is accused of abetting. Anwar's torturer is steely prison head Abasi Fawal (Yigal Naor), who, somewhat incongruously, is also a family man dealing with a serious problem at home: His rebellious daughter (Zineb Oukach) has run off with her boyfriend (Moa Khouas), a student with ties to a radical Islamist group. Meanwhile, back in the U.S., Anwar's very pregnant wife, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon), has heard nothing from her husband since he called from the airport in Cape Town. INS claims he never landed in D.C., but in-flight charges to Anwar's credit card indicate that he was in fact on the plane. Suspecting that something terrible has happened, Isabella flies to Washington and contacts Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard), an old college boyfriend who now works for the influential Senator Hawkins (Alan Arkin). Alan suspects that Anwar has been "renditioned" to a foreign jail, but when he confronts the CIA antiterrorism chief Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep), she denies knowing anything about any Anwar El-Ibrahimi. But, she's quick to add, whatever might be happening to him is certainly being done in the name of national security.
Hood and screenwriter Kelley Sane's taut, powerfully acted political thriller in the Costa-Gavras (MISSING) mold is closely based on the real-life cases of foreign nationals snatched by the CIA while traveling abroad, secretly flown on agency jets and tortured in foreign prisons. According to the policy's critics, the CIA banks heavily on the fact that what happens in the hellholes of Damascus will stay in Damascus (or Morocco, Egypt, Uzbekistan or any other country whose human-rights record has been simultaneously publicly condemned and privately exploited by the U.S. government). Should the truth leak, it's hoped that anxiety over another catastrophic terrorist attack like 9/11 will trump squeamishness about torture. While the film concedes that desperate times call for desperate measures (though the point is made by sinister Corrine Whitman) and in no way implicates the White House, it justly questions whether information gathered through torture is ever reliable, and whether human-rights violations only fan the flames of deadly anti-Americanism and revenge. leave a comment --Ken Fox