When an Egyptian-born, US-resident chemical engineer is spirited away by the CIA, the ramifications are varied. The prisoner (Omar Metwally) finds himself subjected to seriously enhanced questioning. His North African interrogator (Igar Naor) knows these ‘anti-terrorist’ tactics stir up the Islamic fundamentalists in his own (unnamed) state. The CIA observer (Jake Gyllenhaal), exposed to torture for the first time, has twinges of conscience, though back in Washington, his political master (Meryl Streep) experiences no such doubts, even when button-holed by a researcher (Peter Sarsgaard) helping the hostage’s distraught pregnant spouse (Reese Witherspoon). Although Kelley Sane’s screenplay never hides its liberal sympathies, all these shades of argument around the issue of ‘rendition’ get an airing, together with a telling reminder that this dubious practice was actually initiated under the Clinton administration.
So far, so impeccable, yet giving everyone their due means there’s a lot to pack in, resulting in characters which are often mere sketches and pacing which struggles to maintain momentum as we cut hither and yon. The settings are convincing, individual sequences striking (especially when Streep delivers another dragon-lady special), yet the whole is somehow less than the sum of its parts. Director Gavin Hood, the South African graduating from the biting, modest ‘Tsotsi’ to this highly resourced Hollywood production, started his career as a lawyer and is obviously aiming for balanced lucidity. But by underplaying the brutalities of interrogation, for instance, he actually drains much of the anger from the movie, and by the time the script’s contrived connections finally snap together, our interest has become slightly academic. A worthwhile but somewhat underwhelming effort, perhaps too level-headed for its own good.