Recent news about classified Justice Department documents endorsing "severe" interrogation techniques like head-slapping and simulated drowning should bring a measure of credibility to Rendition, a Traffic/Syriana/Babel clone about the extrajudicial use of secret prisons and torture tactics post-9/11. But relevancy isn't the only barometer worth reading here, especially since it's one of the few elements the film has going for it. Following up his overrated Oscar-winner Tsotsi, director Gavin Hood brings the same well-meaning obviousness to a situation that's much more ambiguous and debatable than the evils of apartheid. Two reasonable people can disagree about how far the government should go in the fight against terrorism, but Hood and screenwriter Kelley Sane lean so heavily on one side of the argument that they leave no room for surprises. The good guys are the good guys, the bad guys are the bad guys, and there's little uncertainty in the way things play out.
The title refers to "extraordinary rendition," a policy that allows the U.S. to detain terrorist suspects indefinitely in a location outside its legal and judicial reach. When Egyptian-American Omar Metwally simply doesn't come home from a trip to Johannesburg, his upper-middle-class wife Reese Witherspoon has trouble finding out where he's gone, much less how she can get him back. Having lost his partner in a terrorist bombing in the Middle East, CIA analyst Jake Gyllenhaal is keen to find the men responsible, but he finds Metwally's detention and brutal interrogation disturbing. Meanwhile, Witherspoon appeals to her old friend Peter Sarsgaard, who works as an aide to Senator Alan Arkin, and tries to use political leverage to convince government higher-ups (including one played by Meryl Streep) to free Metwally.
Though Gyllenhaal has a decision to make about what actions are necessary for him to find justice for his slain partner, every other conflict in Rendition is right there on the surface: Characters are either fighting the good fight, or participating in a horrible injustice. The filmmakers fail to acknowledge how the world turns to suit Witherspoon's will solely because she's well-heeled and well-connected, and they grant zero humanity to power brokers like Streep, who won't let misgivings over torture keep her from sipping another glass of Chardonnay. With a cast this stacked, the performances are predictably strong (particularly from Sarsgaard, whose slow-burning role recalls his work in Shattered Glass), but the first impression they make is the same as the last. Along with a big twist that means nothing upon a moment's reflection, they're reduced to mere pieces in a politically contrived puzzle.