Movie Review: Détention Secrète
By Michael Phillips, Tribune movie critic
The way Meryl Streep answers a late-night phone call in "Rendition," you know in four syllables you're dealing with a seasoned D.C. power broker who won't be brought down to the ordinary, earnest level of the film surrounding her. This is the latest in a series of topical wartime Hollywood efforts. (Best so far, by a mile: "In the Valley of Elah.") And like much of what Hollywood put out during World War II, supporting a popular cause rather than questioning our government's intentions and methods in an unpopular one, it is timely without being gripping.
Streep's character is a CIA terrorism chief named Corrinne Whitman, and when she identifies herself on the phone, receiving bad news of a suicide bombing overseas, her name comes out as a quiet statement of fact. Streep plays a mere supporting role in director Gavin Hood's picture, a preachment for saner treatment of suspected evildoers both here and abroad. But it would be a long, tough haul without her, and without Alan Arkin lending his dry, wry authority to a longtime senator not interested in rocking any boats.
These wily veterans stroll off with the film, while the younger actors struggle to energize a story that goes roughly where and how you expect it to go. With one enormous exception, that is. Late in the film there's a surprise (no spoiler here) relating to the story's chronology. Its effect, unfortunately, is a combination of "gotcha!" and "huh?"
En route from a meeting in Cape Town to his home in Chicago, an Egyptian-born chemical engineer played by Omar Metwally is whisked off his connecting flight by American intelligence agents. He's suspected of having a hand in a fatal suicide bombing somewhere in North Africa. ("North Africa" is the locator we see on screen, though it sounds awfully dodgy that way.)
CIA honcho Whitman orders the suspect to be interrogated in the Cheney-approved fashion at an undisclosed location. Witnessing the interrogation first-hand is the film's increasingly horrified protagonist, a CIA analyst played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Meantime, Reese Witherspoon, as the suspect's pregnant wife, searches for clues regarding her husband's whereabouts, with help from an old boyfriend (Peter Sarsgaard) who works for Sen. Hawkins (Arkin). Hold on, because screenwriter Kelley Sane's just getting started: The head of the secret prison holding the chemical engineer has family troubles involving his daughter's Islamic fundamentalist boyfriend, whose brother is jihad, jihad, jihad, all the time jihad.
Director Hood did the satisfying South African Oscar winner "Tsotsi," and he wrangles "Rendition's" multiple storylines with skill. He cannot elevate the writing, however. It has one goal in mind: to remind audiences of our country's worst excesses in the realm of "extraordinary rendition." The idea is to put a human face (Witherspoon's, primarily) on a political issue. But the script is prosaic throughout.
The verdict's still out on Gyllenhaal. He's a solid if limited actor in the right role (did anyone really notice him in "Brokeback Mountain," compared to Heath Ledger?), but he's least convincing playing agile, quick-thinking experts. In the otherwise very good "Zodiac," you never got the blinkered obsessiveness in his character's demeanor. Same here. In "Rendition," he's supposed to be the smartest one in the room, yet he's essentially just a good-looking plodder. And despite its whirligig story machinations, so is "Rendition."
Directed by Gavin Hood; screenplay by Kelley Sane; photographed by Dion Beebe; edited by Megan Gill; music by Paul Hepker and Mark Kilian; production design by Barry Robison; produced by Steve Golin and Marcus Viscidi. A New Line Cinema release. Running time: 2:01. MPAA rating: R (torture/violence and language).
Douglas Freeman - Jake Gyllenhaal
Isabella El-Ibrahimi - Reese Witherspoon
Alan Smith - Peter Sarsgaard
Anwar El-Ibrahimi - Omar Metwally
Sen. Hawkins - Alan Arkin
Corrinne Whitman - Meryl Streep