Holding Spell: Metwally?s character is stunned at his detention.

Imagine you’re an innocent man, arrested by U.S. officials on the flimsiest of pretexts and sent not to jail but to a foreign country where you’re tortured relentlessly to divulge information you don’t have. Actually, you don’t have to imagine: The main goal of Rendition is to show what the clandestine American process called “extraordinary rendition” means for its victims. The film, an impassioned response to the Bush administration’s scattershot “war on terror,” is an effective propaganda piece, but it’s less successful as a character drama.

The movie begins out of chronological order, with the departure of Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) from Cape Town, South Africa, where he’s been attending a scientific conference. Anwar claims several of the characteristics that denote a mainstream American in Hollywood movies: a suburban Chicago address, a young child, and a blond, pregnant wife. But he was born in Egypt and is not a U.S. citizen, making him a candidate for rendition. Returning home, Anwar is snatched at a Washington-area airport and sent to an unidentified North African country, all because he received cell-phone calls from a man whose name resembles one on a terrorist watch list.

Imprisoned and stripped naked, Anwar can do little but endure beatings, electric shocks, and the sensation of drowning that comes from having a water-soaked cloth hood over his face. His plight, however, sets many other people in motion. His wife, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon), flies to D.C. to enlist the help of former boyfriend Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard), now an aide to a senator who works in a spacious, modern structure that looks nothing like a Senate office building. Isabella and Alan tangle with Sen. Hawkins (Alan Arkin), who’s sympathetic but cautious, and Corrinne Whitman (Meryl Streep), the icy Southern matron who runs the rendition program with utmost conviction. Meanwhile, in Africa, CIA analyst Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is forced to observe Anwar’s torture after the case officer who had been responsible for such disagreeable tasks is killed in a bomb blast. The principal torturer is local cop Abasi Fawal (Igal Naor), who’s ruthless but a little distracted. His teenage daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach), who objected to the marriage her father arranged, is missing.

Directed by South African filmmaker Gavin Hood, who made 2005’s simpler but more intense Tsotsi, Rendition is cleverly structured. Scripter Kelley Sane intertwines two sequences that initially seem to be on the same timeline but are finally revealed to be a bit out of alignment. That chronological hiccup sets up the movie’s final surprise, and it’s a neat one. Yet the development is tangential to the central story, which by this point has become wildly implausible. The tale of Abasi and Fatima—which exists mostly so the callous torturer can show a human dimension—is more nuanced than the story of the Americans whose lives briefly intersect with the North Africans’.

The problem is less Streep’s character, a one-dimensional monster much like her role in The Manchurian Candidate, than Gyllenhaal’s. We’re asked to believe that a young, untested CIA employee would repeatedly overstep his authority, first in an attempt to break Anwar, and later to help him. Anwar has been fingered as a plotter in the bombing that killed Douglas’ colleague, which is supposed to explain the American’s acceptance of torture. Yet Douglas’ early vehemence is no more convincing than his subsequent career-risking change of heart, which sends him to the Washington Post. (The paper’s fictional role is probably a bow to its actual role in exposing the CIA’s secret overseas prison system.) The makers of Rendition clearly decided that the story, for both emotional and commercial reasons, needed to finish in the Chicago suburbs rather than a North African prison. As an indictment of U.S. policy, though, the film would be more powerful if it left Anwar where so many other American extrajudicial prisoners are: locked up and beyond hope.