This potboiler from South African director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) isn't as trenchant and dramatic as it seems to be or thinks it is. It may have thematic resonance with low-budgeted films like The Road To Guantanamo, but is too pressing and hardly affecting.
The screenplay by Kelley Sane is sensitive to the U.S. Patriot Act, and ultimately too simplistic and diagrammatic.
Hood ambitiously takes on more than he can handle here, though trying to get the most out of an extremely talented cast, including Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Alan Arkin, and Meryl Streep. He tries to keep the sprawling opening from being too confusing with many strands and characters doled out in Sane's script, but brought more extreme, personal issues with deeper integrity and vitality in his acclaimed Tsotsi.
The tale gets charged as a pregnant Chicago wife, Isabella (Witherspoon) with a young son (Aramis Knight), learns of the disappearance of her Egyptian-born scientist husband Anwar.
From a Cape Town conference he's been captured by the CIA (Hood stages this with startling acuity) and transported to North Africa for questioning after Streep's steely Senator issues the command.
The unsettling portions of the film involve the unseasoned operative Douglas (Gyllenhaal) who observes the emotional and physically bruising machinations of a top security man, a vicious Igal Naor.
Peter Sarsgaard, very good in films like Jarhead and Garden State is more of a plot device here as a friend of Isabella's based in Washington who might be able offer some help to the shadowy, horrific doings.
From his native land, Hood elicits better performances from those far away from Hollywood like Zineb Oukach and Moa Khouas as a couple facing family and intimacy problems. Especially, from an undaunted Metwally as Anwar undergoes something enormously grueling.
Gyllenhaal is almost the lighthouse of the film for the audience, providing some punchy ambiguity to an edgy CIA fellow, yet hardly as absorbing as his journalist in the proficient Zodiac.
From the marketing of Rendition Witherspoon is made out to be more prominent, but she is really more of a secondary character here, and fails to ignite her character who obviously is going through her own emotional whirlwind. Streep is less of a presence than she normally offers in this type of underlying manner, more convincing of an intense figure in pictures like The Manchurian Candidate.
The gravity of such a bureaucratic legally squalid milieu is related with bold, gritty feeling to the post 9/11 world. But, it lacks the raw immediacy as more than a few news savvy people know the visceral ends of a never-ending attempt to save lives.