At once immensely earnest and sharply disingenuous, Rendition aims to be a smart political thriller with a conscience, and falls short of the mark. As a senator who's both the voice of moral authority and the embodiment of political finessing, Alan Arkin booms that if he took on the administration and intelligence community over "extraordinary rendition," the test case would have to be rock solid. So too, audiences looking for a movie that encapsulates the topsy-turvy morality of the fear-fueled policies of the Bush administration will just have to wait. This isn't it.

There are flashes of bravery in Gavin Hood's robust direction. The South African native (who won an Oscar for Tsotsi) expertly contrasts the American life of Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) — whose very pregnant wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) launches a one-woman campaign to find him after he fails to return from a chemical engineering conference — with the underground world he's disappeared into, one that employs the guilty-until-proved-guiltier tactics of rendition and torture.

The anguished apple pie face of the petite Witherspoon, framed between the shoulders of Capitol Police officers as she pleads for answers from Meryl Streep's CIA bigwig, is a potent image of the impotence of ordinary Americans.

But there's an inherent cynicism here: Isabella lends her Egyptian-born husband the presumption of innocence that was stripped away when he was transported to a secret prison in an unnamed North African city (filmed in Marrakech, Morocco).

To a fault, screenwriter Kelley Sane contrasts governmental policy with the microcosm of family, and manages to trivialize both in the process. That's especially true of the relationship between the forceful Abasi Fawal (Igal Naor), who runs that prison, and his rebellious daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach), who doesn't know her new boyfriend, Khalid (Moa Khouas), as well as she thinks.

A suicide bomb attack against Abasi leads to Anwar's imprisonment, and brings comfortably numb CIA analyst Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) to the forefront. In a story that demands self-sacrifice from nearly everyone, Freeman is Rendition's designated hero, the quiet American who finally speaks up.

A mash-up of political intrigue and personal recriminations that never coalesces into anything more than ripped-from-the-headlines melodrama, Rendition nonetheless treats its characters with a welcome equanimity. No one discusses evil. There's just a quiet resignation, the knowledge that tragedy will be commonplace for the foreseeable future.

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