Director: Gavin Hood
Writers: Kelley Sane
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Omar Metwally, Meryl Streep, Alan Arkin, Peter Sarsqaard
Rating: R (language, violence)
Running Time: 120 min
Release Date: 10/19/07
Anwar el-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), a PhD chemical engineer, is leaving a conference in South Africa when his cell phone rings but the caller hangs up as soon as he speaks. He thinks little of it. Meanwhile in some unspecified North African country, two CIA men are in the back seat of a car caught in a traffic jam. One of them is Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) an inexperienced analyst and the other is his partner a seasoned field operative. A bomb detonates and the senior agent is killed by a piece of shrapnel. Near the explosion is a restaurant patio where a waiter is shot just before the explosion and a man is hustled to safety just in the nick of time. What we don’t notice is that a girl who is the man’s daughter is killed in the explosion as well.
Back in Washington, Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep) is awaked from her sleep by a call informing her of the attack and that one of her operatives was killed. Anwar is detained at Dulles airport and questioned because the mysterious hang up calls had been from the terrorist leading the group behind the bombing. Although the interrogation produces nothing and Anwar passes a lie detector test, Whitman has him renditioned to the aforementioned unspecified North African country for a little persuasion. Douglas is given the job of observing the interrogation for the CIA given the lack of an immediately available field agent to do the job.
Let me digress to point out a few major flaws in the plot. The CIA rendition program, which the movie points out was started during the Clinton administration, has always involved the transfer of foreign nationals from one foreign country to another for interrogation. Anwar is a U.S. permanent resident and to send him from an arrest in the U.S. to a foreign country falls completely outside the parameters of the program. Furthermore, the NSA would have the content of the phone calls. So they would know that there was no real communication between Anwar and the terrorist group. One also wonders why the terrorist leader would keep calling the wrong number.
Isabella (Reese Witherspoon), Anwar’s obviously pregnant wife, is left at the airport for her husband. She finds that that there is no record of Anwar entering the country but that he had boarded the plane in South Africa. In addition he had made a purchase with his credit card while in flight. So she knows something strange has happened. Rather then suspecting a crime had been committed at the airport, she naturally suspects illegal action by the government. Conveniently she happens to have friend, Alan (Peter Sarsqaard), who is a staffer for a powerful senator (Alan Arkin) on the Intelligence Committee. Alan makes some inquires and eventually figures out what happened but the Senator, who is opposed to the rendition program, doesn’t think this is the test case he wants. Poor Isabella has been trashed by both friends and foe alike. She does get one break when the senator’s receptionist tips her to the time when Whitman will be attending a meeting. This too is in vain as Whitman denies knowing anything as Capitol police drag her away.
Meanwhile back in the unspecified North African country Douglas watches as police official Abasi Fawal (Igal Nor) supervises Anwar’s interrogation. It progresses through the stages of humiliation, cold temperatures, aggressive questioning, a punch in the face which produce nothing because as know Anwar is innocent. Next comes water boarding and electric shock until finally Anwar confesses just get them to stop. He admits to helping the terrorist group make more powerful explosive in return for a $40,000 payment that he failed to receive because of a mix up. He also names all of the members of the soccer team from the last year he lived in his native country as his co-conspirators. With this Douglas becomes convinced that Anwar is innocent and hatches a plan to get him free.
I found the conclusion rather unconvincing. However, Igal Nor’s performance and the side story of his daughters involvement with a young man against her father’s wishes is more interesting. We learn that the reason Abasi is so relentless in his efforts to break Anwar is that his daughter had been killed in the explosion and that he was the target of the attack. We see that all of the key players: Corrine of the CIA, Abasi the policeman, and even the terrorists have all believe they are doing the right thing and have a great degree of courage in carrying out their actions. This conflict will continue for a long time and it will most likely get a lot worse before it ends.
The movie is obviously a political propaganda piece against U.S. policy that ultimately it is misses its mark. Obviously it would be tragic if you were in Anwar’s situation. But in reality we face a far greater threat from a miscarriage of our domestic criminal justice system than being falsely accused of being a terrorist and taken somewhere for torture. A lot more likely!