A few years ago, a disquieting rumour started to brew. The US government, it was whispered, were detaining without charge people remotely suspected of connections with terrorism and shipping them off to countries whose interrogation methods, let’s say, weren’t over-encumbered by scruples. Of course, pained official denials were issued. But the stories soon became too many - and too well authenticated -to be denied, so the official line changed. This process, which went by the robot-speak name of ‘extraordinary rendition’, was justified – so it was claimed - in the face of ‘exceptional circumstances’.
Such is the start-point of Gavin Hood’s hard-hitting follow-up to his Oscar-winning bow Tsotsi. As a South African born during the apartheid era Hood’s no stranger to unscrupulous regimes, and he brings a searing sense of grim immediacy to his material. Egyptian-born Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), a chemical engineer resident in the US since boyhood, is scooped up by the CIA at Chicago’s O’Hare airport and, on the strength of a couple of numbers on his cellphone, delivered hooded and shackled to a North African country where a terrorist bomb recently exploded in the capital’s main square. His heavily pregnant wife (Reese Witherspoon), with no word on her husband’s whereabouts, stubbornly badgers the authorities. Meanwhile a young CIA operative (Jake Gyllenhaal), deputed to supervise Anwar’s torture, starts experiencing misgivings….
Hood knits together these and other strands of the intricate story with impressive skill, never letting the pace slacken nor losing sight of the moral dilemma at the heart of the movie. From his cast, which includes Meryl Streep as an ice-cold CIA boss, Alan Arkin as a time-serving US senator and Israeli actor Igal Naor as the police interrogator with personal problems of his own, he draws performances of total conviction. And in the final reel he pulls off a twist that’ll make you gasp – and will have M Night Shyamalan green with envy – but which still, when you think back on it, makes perfect narrative sense.