October, 2007, Drama

Directed by:Gavin Hood

Starring:Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep, Omar Metwally, Peter Sarsgaard, and Alan Arkin

If hell is paved with good intentions as the hoary saying goes, then director Gavin Hood has made a semi-pact with the devil in this bi-polar political thriller, half of which is a plausible if lop-sided indictment of the U.S. policy on political torture that’s cinematically joined at the hip with a schmaltzy tale of young love done in by cultural and religious constraints. Sitting through its 2 hour running time makes you feel like a fried egg, cooked sunny-side up.

Hood is best known for the earnest but painfully predictable Totsi, last year’s Oscar winner as Best Foreign Film. A lawyer turned filmmaker, his previous movies have been shot in his native South Africa, although he trained at University of California’s film school. Working from a debut script by Kelley Sane, Hood begins this story in Capetown where Anwar El-lbrahimi, (Omar Metwally) an Egyptian chemical engineer living and working in the United States, boards a plane to Washington D.C. where he’s scheduled to connect with a flight to Chicago where he lives with his wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) and young son. But because American security chief Corrine Whitman, (Meryl Streep) believes Anwar has been receiving calls from a known terrorist implicated in a bombing incident which has just occurred, she has him plucked from the stream of deplaning passengers at Dulles airport and whisked off to the country where the attack occurred. There he’s to be interrogated by Abasi Fawal, the host country’s head of internal security, under the watchful eyes of Douglas Freeman, (Jake Gyllenhall) a research assistant on Whitman’s staff. Freeman’s presence is required because one of the fatalities in the attack was also a member of Whitman’s staff and she has no one else available for this thoroughly distasteful task.

When her husband doesn’t show up in Chicago as planned, Isabella contacts Alan Smith, (Peter Sarsgaard) a college friend of Anwar’s now working as legislative aid to Senator Hawkins, (Alan Arkin) chair of the committee charged with overseeing Whitman’s security operations. At Isabella’s urging, Smith investigates Anwar’s disappearance only to encounter a combination of lies, intimidation and stonewalling from Whitman and her subordinates who refuse to admit they even know of the missing man’s existence. 

When questioned by Abasi, Anwar first reacts with halting indignation then terrified pleading as his protests of ignorance and innocence are answered with beatings, electric shock treatments and “water-boarding”. Watching Anwar’s interrogation with increasing revulsion, Freeman contacts Whitman to offer his opinion of Anwar’s innocence only to be instructed to take no active role in the process, which shows little sign of actually determining the suspect’s involvement, if indeed there is any. Meanwhile, Senator Hawkins refuses his subordinate’s increasingly agitated request for support, angrily telling Smith there’s no point in challenging the clandestine work of Whitman in the midst of a national atmosphere in which being “soft” on terrorists is the surest way to political suicide. 

When Anwar suddenly cracks and implicates several associates, Freeman’s suspicions lead him to independently do research which suggests that Anwar’s revelations have been made up simply to avoid further suffering. Yet Abasi presses on, convinced that he’s been instructed to do so by Freeman’s superiors, who ignore his pleas that they’re torturing the wrong man - - to which Whitman tartly replies, “America doesn’t torture”…. 

Unfortunately, this painfully explicit, (and much needed) exploration of individual rights vs. the need to protect the innocent civilians from religious terrorism shares screen time with an improbable tale about the interrogator’s doe-eyed daughter, whose surreptitious romance with a young radical blossoms right under Abasi’s nose despite the fact that he’s already planned an arranged marriage for her. When the script fuses these two seemingly unrelated stories, it does so by bending the plot’s timeline backward, a device reminiscent of The Clearing, a 3 year-old Robert Redford film in which the audience is lead to believe that events unfolding in the storyline are taking place in the present when in fact they have already occurred. (Here, the technique is so clumsily inserted I initially thought the projectionist had mistakenly repeated an earlier reel from the movie.) 

Despite a compelling performance by Yigal Naor as the self-confidently brutish Abasi and the briskly sketched ones by Arkin and Sarsgaard, the rest of the cast never rises to the level required to give this tale the full emotional heft it deserves; Streep’s lines and her interpretation of them only provide another opportunity for her to portray a self-absorbed, waspish character, while Gyllenhaal’s attempt to convey moral ambiguity comes across as simple ennui. The young lovers don’t register at all.

In the main, the actors’ contributions are consistent with Hood’s visual sense and pacing…everything is competent, but nothing is particularily noteworthy. The prison where Omar’s abuse occurs is properly intimidating, but the rest of the set design and cinematography offer little that is fresh or interesting.  

Since this is an expensive commercial Hollywood effort and not a simple art-house production, the audience can expect (1) a happy ending which (2) absolves American consciences of any lingering responsibility for the ethical implications of Anwar’s plight. Hood delivers both those ingredients, but the moral outrage he obviously feels about this timely and important subject lies buried in a movie too busy trying to simultaneously entertain and preach.


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