An Egyptian US resident (Metwally) is abducted by the CIA, flown to North Africa and tortured for information on terrorism. Back home his distraught, pregnant wife (Witherspoon) tries to discover what has happened.
The latest multi-strand story to flit between continents - from Cape Town to Chicago to Washington, D. C. and the coyly unspecific “North Africa” - gives Gavin Hood, director of the Oscar-winning Tsotsi, his American debut, an ambitious thriller of terrorism and torture, political intrigue and personal anguish. Its subject
is ‘extraordinary rendition’, the practice of shipping terrorist suspects to countries untroubled by human rights, where ‘allies’ happily get medieval on people’s asses.
The ideological deck is immediately stacked with a ‘suspect’ who is blatantly innocent. Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Metwally) is a nice, thoroughly Americanised Egyptian; a respected engineer with a blonde soccer-mom wife (Reese Witherspoon). It might have been more ethically edgy if he’d had a beard or some clue what his tormentors were on about. But the nightmare that engulfs the El-Ibrahimis is just one layer of the interlocking plot. Jake Gyllenhaal’s CIA analyst Douglas, liaising on his first torture, drinks too much and has a crisis
of conscience. He’s a throwback to Graham Green’s disillusioned globe-trotters, but hardly likely as a post-9/11 CIA spook. Much of the time he’s an impassive observer who signals little of the internal struggle that eventually bursts out.
In fact, not much happens for ages, except that poor Anwar gets the hood-over-head and electrodes-to-testicles treatment at the hands of a big-time brute (Igal Naor). In D. C., Witherspoon’s Izzy handily has a concerned ex-boyfriend (Sarsgaard) who happens to be aide to a US Senator (Arkin), so the old flames can stage dramatic confrontations with Meryl Streep’s CIA anti-terrorist chief. But even these actors get little opportunity to shine. In North Africa, the policeman’s lovely daughter (Oukach) is doing a Romeo & Juliet with a crazy kid (Khouas) who’s a jihadi, which you know won’t go well.
Hood expends more energy achieving slick visuals than in weaving the strands together - a suspenseful last act doesn’t compensate for how flat the rest of the film is. Compared with documentary-style dramas by Winterbottom, Greengrass or Iñárritu, this plays phony, however well-intentioned its mission.
Disappointingly dull given the explosive subject matter, this at least attempts to get a message into the mainstream. An extra star for effort rather than execution.