Like any airport, Dulles International Airport is a busy place. Located just outside of Washington, D.C., the namesake of President Eisenhower’s infamous secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, hosts about 25 million passengers every year.
These people are in a rush, hopping off one plane and onto another while squeezing in a few cell phone calls in between. In this systematic chaos, Homeland Security officials could abduct a man from the midst of the crowd – without the hundreds of people around him noticing his disappearance.
Thus is the slight exaggeration of true events that sets the stage in “Rendition,” a superb political thriller from the director Gavin Hood, who also helmed “Tsotsi,” which won the Academy Award for best foreign language film in 2006.
The film’s focus is Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally, “Munich”), an Egyptian-American chemical engineer who vanishes without a trace after boarding a plane from South Africa to Washington, D.C. His pregnant wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon, “Walk the Line”) travels to the capital to look for him but is told he never boarded the plane to Washington. With convincing evidence Anwar actually was on the plane, Isabella begins to suspect the worst and turns to Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard, “Flightplan”), an old friend who works in the office of a powerful US senator, for help.
Meanwhile, upon orders from Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep, “The Devil Wears Prada”), the head of the CIA’s anti-terrorism division, Anwar is transported to Egypt and repeatedly tortured, though no real evidence is found linking him to any terrorist activity. Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal, “Brokeback Mountain”) is the young CIA agent in charge of observing the “interrogation” carried out by Egyptian officials. With growing unease, Douglas is pushed into a decision so many secret police agents before him have faced – continue following orders or do what he knows is right.
For a film about something as hotly topical as extraordinary rendition – the secret transfer of a person from U.S. soil to a country with laws more conducive to torture – “Rendition” is surprisingly unassuming. It markedly avoids caricatures, especially of its heroes. Douglas, the only one in position to help Anwar, is hardly righteous, or an idealist. Alan and the senator, though sympathetic to Isabella’s situation, are worried foremost for their employment. And Isabella herself, in a convincing performance by Witherspoon, is a typical victim, with no superhuman Hollywood delusions to save her.
Whitman is the exception, played by Streep with all the callous calculation and cold imperceptions we have come to associate with the CIA and government officials. Her evil may be over the top, but only because it’s concentrated in one person. The performance is actually perfect as an embodiment of the various governmental wolves who have deceived and been exposed in the past six years – there’s nothing she says or does that is very different from what you might hear in a White House press conference.
“Rendition” is uncomfortable to watch, but it is so for reasons beyond watching an innocent man being tortured. It’s uncomfortable because it realizes the horror of the headlines that inspired it (Google the tragedy of Maher Arar). It’s uncomfortable because it portrays betrayals of trust by our government, where the only way an official can serve justice is by disobeying orders.
More than anything, it’s uncomfortable because it’s a reminder of the many people who have disappeared from within our midst in recent years, and the fact that we have scarcely noticed.
At Quality 16 and Showcase
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars