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Ghost Plane:
The True Story of the CIA Rendition and Torture Program
by Stephen Grey
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
. "Rendition"

The practice and policy of what is referred to as "extraordinary rendition," or the taking of suspects to other countries for torture-included interrogation, started in the Clinton Administration. 9/11 provided the Bush administration the opportunity to turn up the level of permitted violence. Since that time, people and politicians have been at odds on the morality and usefulness of it and, though cries for ending or curtailing it echo through the homeland, no significant change has been made (that we know of), no backing off. The policy is alive and vigorous here in 2007 post-Abu Ghraib; Bush keeps maintaining that "we don't torture"; and, finally, a film is courageous (or, dumb?) enough to dramatize it.

It's certainly a subject given to drama, with the elements of clandestine abductions, torture dungeons and raging political headlines. The film enters the debate by attempting to make the case that there's not enough to be gained by the practice to justify it, something experts and military thinkers disagree on even as CIA marching orders seem to be unaffected by critics.

A target of CIA attention is Egyptian-born chemical engineer Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), the attractive, successful, American-educated husband of an All-American, blond girl-next-door Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) and the father of a young boy who idolizes him. Wifey is pregnant with her second child. What no one in their suburban household suspects is that he's been under the watch of the agency possibly for no other reason than his name and his foreign travels.

When CIA case officer Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), stationed in North Africa, survives a suicide bombing that kills his replacement, the act sets off the fuse that's been burning for El-Ibrahimi. Chief anti-terrorist spymaster in Washington, Corrinne Whitman (a steely, witchy Meryl Streep) orders his immediate rendition to elicit his secret contacts that could lead our guys to the parties responsible for the loss of their agent.

On the basis of phone records that indicate El-Ibrahimi has been in contact with a potential terrorist, he is abducted in the Washington airport terminal on his arrival back from a work trip to Cape Town, South Africa and is spirited out of the country without warning and without much delicacy. Airline records indicate he didn't get off the plane at its destination.

Human rights isn't nicely observed by this crowd, though the prisoner isn't injured on the trip to a secret detention facility in the Middle East for his meeting with his interrogator, Abasi Fawal (Igal Naor), in his torture chamber -- the man who (we learn in a flashback) was the target of the bombing.

Fawal, it turns out, is no simple cardboard character but, rather, a complex man with some perspective and a father whose young daughter disapperas from his household to be with her lover. A stern disciplinarian, he's both caring and brutal as he feels the pain of his missing child while inflicting endless pain on the subject he's convinced is lying.

Less certain that they have the right man is Freeman, as he observes Fawal's techniques until they make him ill with disgust and he begins to doubt El-Ibrahimi's guilt. Freeman, against his agreement with Fawal gets in the way of the violent techniques but backs off as electrical shock is applied on the now-nude captive. Finally, El-Ibrahimi breaks. He can take no more and he talks, delivering a list of names. But is he spilling anything of value?

Intercut with this is what Isabella is going through as she grows more frantic with grief and worry. She takes a plane to Washington and calls upon old paramour Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard), now the top staffer for Illinois Senator Harkins (Alan Arkin, "Little Miss Sunshine"). After presenting incontrovertible evidence that her husband was on the flight the officials deny ever happened, she asks him to plead her case with his boss. Given the chance, she confronts Corrinne Whitman, herself, who offers no trace of sympathy.

This is the world of dark possibilities and a film with three plots (North Africa, Chicago and Washington) that interconnect. Its screenplay by Kelley Sane makes its anti-rendition agenda more than obvious, building an argument that has all the subtlety of a hammer blow. Director Gavin Hood ("Tsotsi") is nothing if not visual, and the feel he has for lighting and atmospherics is outstandingly "rendered" by his cinematographer, Dion Beebe ("Miami Vice," "Memoirs of a Geisha").

The score by Paul Hepker and Mark Kilian contains highly interesting musical textures and rhythms of North African derivation that are well worth paying attention to (see below for a link to the album). In fact there's no bad note on the production side.

Streep takes her comedic dominatrix of "The Devil Wears Prada" to a seriously detestable depth and, if you ever wondered if she can make you hate her, see her here. Gyllenhaal, so good in the role of charming naif ("Jarhead," "Brokeback Mountain"), is our witness and moral touchpoint in his debut exposure to the realities of sanctioned torture techniques. Naor presents his bilateral character with appropriate weight. Metwally's highly physical performance is clearly the most impressive commitment to the integrity of the theme.

Hood uses the different subplots as a means to intercut and build tension but to somewhat underwhelming effect in an expose' movie with echoes of "Syriana" that devolves into melodrama. Still, in the end, there's enough excitement, dimension and an involved level of acting by an ensemble of first-rate players to make the time rendered worth spending.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally)
In the first moment of disappearance.

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