Halfway through Rendition, while walking along the Potomac River in view of the Jefferson Monument, congressional aide Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard) explains to the frightened wife of a detainee what "extraordinary rendition" means. By then, any definition is inadequate. Director Gavin Hood has already transformed that phrase from a wonky-sounding legal term into a terrifying metaphor. As Beltway insider Smith explains how the U.S. started outsourcing interrogation, he sounds like the guard in Kafka's "In the Penal Colony," describing an instrument of torture as if it was a machine without a real agent.
Hood focuses on the rendition process with a similarly chilling attention to detail. It begins innocuously enough for U.S. national El-Ibrahami (Omar Metwally). He receives an unidentified phone call in South Africa, while he's at a convention of chemical engineers. In the U.S., the CIA traces that number to the cell phone of an Arab terrorist whom they think has masterminded a Cairo bombing. The CIA intercept El-Ibrahami on his return to the U.S. and send him off to Egypt with a bag over his head for interrogation and torture. At home in Chicago, El-Ibrahami's wife, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon), nine months pregnant, is at O'Hare International Airport wondering what's happened to her husband.
Although there are torture scenes, we've seen worse. The movie's most gripping effect is Hood's fluid editing, which brings the whole dirty process into one smoothly flowing bureaucratic machine involving Americans, Egyptian operatives, detainees, and terrorists. Rendition shifts rhythmically between Washington's light-blue, sterile landscape and Cairo's violent, orange-hued labyrinth. By the end, Washington is as much terra incognita as the Cairo slums, and it's easy for anybody to wonder what we've turned ourselves into.
Hood has managed to snag Sarsgaard, Witherspoon, Alan Arkin, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Meryl Streep for this. And he gets them to play figures who are strangely uncomfortable in their own skin. Gyllenhaal plays his unwilling interrogator, witnessing the rendition--and participating in it--with the same fake cowboy toughness that he brought to Brokeback Mountain. Sarsgaard is characteristically deliberate and eagle-eyed but unwilling to step over the line to save El-Ibrahami. Arkin's cranky senator and Streep's ice-goddess CIA functionary are all-American prototypes, but in a few revealing moments their characters look unsure about what they're getting themselves involved in. And as the rendition proceeds, Egyptian actor Metwally--playing a character who has been living in the United States for 15 years--gets his adopted home country stripped off him.
But is he a terrorist? The question loses its validity. In one of the movie's scarier moment, Gyllenhaal's interrogator wonders aloud whether torture is getting Al-Ibraham to say anything anyone can believe. "Nothing was said," the Egyptian interrogator responds, with some annoyance. "Is that what you want to say?" Without any rush to judgment, Hood is showing Americans and Egyptians using rendition to root out evil at the source, and all they come in touch with is their own nameless fear.