Hollywood kick-starts another Oscar season with a modish globetrotting guilt trip that histrionically explores how government policy and our involvement in the Middle East affects people in America on a personal level. The aura of self-importance that surrounds these tongue-cluckers is an intolerable cruelty, but Gavin Hood’s follow-up to the despicable Tsotsi takes the cake. The film does not boast the poetic minutiae of Babel, and though it may spare us Syriana‘s brutalizing lecture approach, its harangue about the U.S. government policy of “extraordinary rendition”—struck up during the Clinton administration but given “fuck-yeah!” leverage during Bush II’s regime—is just as trite and condescending.
Hopscotching between North Africa, Cape Town, and Washington, D.C., with a brief pit stop in Chicago, the film asks audiences to connect the dots, la-la-la-la-la. Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), an Egyptian-American chemical engineer, is suspected of terrorism after his phone is linked to an Islamic fundamentalist possibly responsible for a terrorist blast in North Africa that leaves a C.I.A. agent dead. Baby-faced Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) inherits torture privileges after his colleague’s death, and together with Abasi Fawel (Igal Naor), the head of a secret prison simpatico with the C.I.A., they beat and electrocute a poor Anwar to a bloody pulp. Back in America, Anwar’s very pregnant wife, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon), enlists the help of a Senate aide and former flame, Alan (Peter Sarsgaard), to find her missing husband, which brings her into hilarious contact with Corrinne Whitman (Meryl Streep), the ghoul responsible for okaying Anwar’s extraordinary no-genitalia-shall-be-seen rendition.
“This is my first torture,” says Douglas to Corrine on the phone. Gyllenhaal’s evinces the emotional range of a lump of Play-Doh, his weirdly catatonic performance either suggesting a bullied childhood or a stint at a mental institution. The sarcasm barely scans in Douglas’s voice, but Corrine has the instincts of a homing missile, picking up on the young man’s lament and putting him temporarily in line with a mind-boggling mix of viciousness and placation that suggests Streep was trying to simultaneously channel Miranda Priestly and South Park‘s Mr. Mackey. This spider woman—essentially a white liberal’s vision of Bush with tits—weaves a tangled web of corruption that knowingly destroys innocent lives in the interest of national security.
Character arcs have rarely been crafted with such crude attention-deficit: One moment Douglas is torturing Anwar, the next he’s boozing the night away in a haze of guilt. Hood lavishes more attention on the row of shots Douglas chugs down than he does on the young man’s moral crisis or the film’s nameless Middle East locale, a place we will recognize as Middle Eastern only by the sheep ushered across dusty roads and the ethnic chants that fill the soundtrack. Hood, vying for auteurist cred, even samples the rattlesnake sound that often signals his main character’s comings and goings throughout Tsotsi. Such is the patronizing chic of the film, which, as it trivially builds to a cross-cutting of the film’s characters doing much running, understands the cruel Igal Naor’s Abasi, oblivious that his missing daughter, Fatima (Zineb Oukach), is fraternizing with the terrorist enemy, as if he was the ruler of the Temple of the Doom.
As for the film’s level of political discourse, it has the heft of a fifth-grader’s oral recitation, like Douglas’s rant about how our anti-terror tactics are breeding more terrorism or how the senator played by Alan Arkin refuses to help Isabella because there’s a small chance Anwar may actually be guilty. Hood’s use of widescreen is similarly fatuous—every bit as gratuitous as Isabella being nine month’s pregnant when she wobbles toward Corrine in a government building demanding to know her husband’s whereabouts. The mortified Corrine gives the girl the obligatory cold shoulder, at which point Isabella, framed before the Capitol building, begins to have contractions! Oh, the humanity. But why stop there? Let us see Isabella’s water breaking at the Lincoln Memorial, or the baby’s head—red-blue-and-white-stripped umbilical chord choking its neck—popping out of her vagina as her legs dangle over the side of Mount Rushmore. That’s restraint!