There’s no doubt that the subject of extraordinary rendition—the American policy that allows terrorist suspects to be extra-legally seized, and secretly spirited off to foreign countries for the sort of harsh interrogation impermissible within the country—is an important issue, one certainly worthy of dramatic treatment. Unfortunately, this film, written by Kelley Sane and directed by Gavin Hood (whose far superior South African drama “Tsotsi” won an Oscar), doesn’t do the subject justice: its political stance is feeble, its dramatic sense weak, and its execution flawed. That’s a pity, but it’s still the fact.

“Rendition” begins with an explosion in the marketplace of an unspecified North African city that might be meant for the country’s security chief Abasi (Igal Naor), who’s lounging at an outdoor café, but leaves among its victims the chief CIA case officer in the region, who’s just arriving to observe one of Abasi’s interrogations—of a man seized in a rendition. The officer’s death shifts that responsibility to young Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), a novice in such matters and, as it happens, a sensitive sort.

The film then cuts to Chicago, where suburban wife Isabella El-Ibrahimi (Reese Witherspoon), along with her darling little son, is awaiting the return of her Egyptian-born but American educated husband Anwar (Omar Metwally), a chemist, from an international conference. Unfortunately, he’s the one who’s been surreptitiously taken into custody by U.S. security forces at the airport and whisked off to the country where that horrific blast occurred for intense interrogation—torture, really—at Abasi’s hands under Freeman’s nervous observation.

It has to be said that the picture immediately undermines the serious atmosphere it wants to build in these opening sequences. First, by failing to identify the country where the bombing occurs; having shots of the carnage described even on cable news broadcasts simply as coming from “North Africa” deflates the sense of authenticity and suggests an unwillingness to name some ally. (At least “The Kingdom,” for all its flaws, was specifically set in Saudi Arabia.) But then, when the scene shifts across the Atlantic, a location credit informs us not only that it’s “Chicago,” but “Chicago, United States.” (Are viewers really presumed to be so unintelligent that they need such a prompt?) To add insult to injury, the setting looks a lot more like California than Illinois.

But that’s alright, because the U.S. side of things soon switches to Washington, where the distraught Isabella goes to get the help of an old friend, Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard), the chief aide to a senator (Alan Arkin), in locating her husband. Smith’s queries lead him to the arrogant head of CIA counter-terrorist activity, Corrinne Whitman (Meryl Streep), one of those supremely confident bureaucrats who apparently think that civil liberties can be disposed of like tissues—just think Dick Cheney in drag. But the whole business gets Isabella nowhere; Smith and his boss turn wimpy in the face of fears that they might be thought weak on national security. Fortunately, back in Somewhere, North Africa, Freeman gets more and more concerned over Abasi’s brutal treatment of Anwar and takes matters into his own hands in a feel-better-about-yourselves denouement that reeks of “Three Days of the Condor.”

But there’s a third element to the rhythmic alternation of plot threads here. Abasi’s estranged daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach) has taken up with Khalid (Moa Khouas), a radical student who’s part of a revolutionary Islamist cell. Her father’s desperate search for her eventually links up with the other threads, but in a way that toys with chronology and may prove infuriating.

There’s much else that’s unsatisfying here, too. One can begin with Gyllenhaal, a talented young actor but curiously anemic as the American innocent abroad. But the other actors aren’t much better. Witherspoon hasn’t much to do but act concerned, and Sarsgaard, who can usually be depended on to do something interesting, is bland. Even with that, though, they’re all superior to veterans Arkin, who’s all empty bluster, and Streep, who can do little but arch her eyebrows and turn up her nose in a role that’s little more than a reprise of her turn in “The Manchurian Candidate.”

The sequences focusing on the Arab performers are generally stronger, but still inadequately realistic. Metwally makes a sympathetic victim, but though he suffers nobly, there’s something almost suffocating in the careful choreography of the torture scenes, which are carefully photographed and lit to accentuate the obscene violence but keep any offensive nudity out of eyeshot. And Naor makes an imposing, Telly Savalas-like thug in a suit. The Fatima-Khalid subplot, though, is never really convincing, and it’s also insulting—why must girls in such stories always be so stupidly naive as to fall for a fellow who’s obviously up to no good?

Technically, “Rendition” is good enough, but the surface gloss can’t redeem a treatment of a provocative topic that, in the end, seems weak-kneed. Why, for example, in a script that never once mentions the names Bush or Cheney, does a character take the time to inform us pointedly that the process being condemned here was initiated by “the Clinton administration”? That may seem a small point, but like that failure to name the North African country and the thoroughly unconvincing feel-good finale, it’s characteristic of a film that aims to appear courageous but in the end comes across as mealy-mouthed. The tip-toeing of Hood, Sane and everybody else here makes their picture seem as cautious—or is it cowardly—as the fictional senator whom they dismiss as craven.