Thursday, March 19, 2009

Rendition (New Line Cinema, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked was Rendition, a 2007 thriller based on the practice of “extraordinary rendition,” which meant the U.S. government essentially kidnapping potential terrorism suspects (or anyone else) and shipping them overseas, usually to Middle Eastern countries like Egypt or Syria, so the locals could torture them and presumably extract information. The practice of rendition was actually initiated by the Clinton administration but was, not surprisingly, expanded under Bush after 9/11 — and since Obama has already announced that it will continue under his administration (he’s gone on record as saying, “The U.S. doesn’t torture” — as did Bush, albeit under Donald Rumsfeld’s elastic definition that something had to threaten life or permanent bodily injury before it was considered “torture” — but, as with so much else, why should Americans have to torture people when they can so easily outsource it?).

The central character is Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), an Egyptian-born legal resident of the U.S. since age 14, who’s married to an American, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon, looking larger than we’re used to her and not just because she’s pregnant during virtually the entire film) and has a son, Jeremy (Aramis Knight) and a lucrative career as a chemical engineer. The film opens with an explosion in a city in “North Africa” (a made-up country so the filmmakers — director Gavin Hood and screenwriter Kelley Sane — wouldn’t be accused of trashing any actual North African country in their story, though it’s quite clear they mean Egypt) set off by a suicide bomber, and Anwar is nailed when the cell-phone number of the head of the terrorist organization that claimed responsibility and whisked off the plane on which he was flying home from a chemical industry conference in South Africa (a real country) to be held briefly in America by the CIA and then “rendered” to “North Africa” for torture.

The white knight role this sort of story requires is actually filled by two people. One is Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal, top-billed), a CIA analyst who was in the same car as the American State Department official who actually died in the terror blast — he’s shown with the man’s blood all over his shirt as he rather querulously asks a person on his staff to get him another — and who agrees to “advise” the “North African” police chief, Abasi Fawal (Yigal Naor), on what questions to ask El-Ibrahimi. The man’s torture is shown in literally excruciating detail, particularly waterboarding (if anyone can watch this movie and still maintain that waterboarding is not torture, they deserve to be waterboarded themselves) and electric shock, and Anwar holds out for an unspecified period of several days until he finally cracks, agrees to confess to meeting with the terrorist leader and accepting $40.000 to give him advice on what chemicals to use to make his bombs more deadly, and is pressed to name the names of fellow terrorists. Not knowing the names of any real terrorists, Anwar ends up giving the authorities the names of the 1990 Egyptian — oops, I mean “North African” — soccer team. This, along with the sheer unlikelihood of a man pulling down a $200,000 per year salary selling himself for $40,000, convinces Freeman that Anwar is innocent and should be released.

The other white knight is Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard), aide to Senator Hawkins (Alan Arkin),who at one point dated Isabella before she married Anwar, and when she seeks him out he can’t help but take her case and try to find out what happened to her husband. He manages to piece most of it together but runs into a stone wall trying to question CIA official Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep, in a role she probably enjoyed playing if only because it gave her an opportunity to play a villainess, which she does with a chilling understatement that only adds to the character’s fury) about what exactly happened to the nice young man with a terrorist’s number on his cell phone (and no, we don’t ever learn how exactly it got there).

Rendition isn’t a great movie, but it is a well-made thriller, maintaining audience interest and suspense while at the same time making a propaganda point against the rendition policy — though had Anwar actually turned out to be involved in terrorism, it would have been worse as propaganda but better as a film (much the way Sam Fuller’s great Korean War movie The Steel Helmet disguised itself for about two-thirds of its running time as a pox-on-both-your-houses anti-war film and in the last third took on chilling authority once the North Korean sergeant turned out to be a true-blue Communist instead of an unwilling conscript) and would have had some of the moral ambiguity of the great noirs by which it was obviously inspired.

Rendition is, however, thoroughly weakened by one of the worst uses of non-linear plotting in the history of the movies: intercut throughout the main plot involving Anwar, Freeman, Smith and the other principal characters is the story of young “North African” Khalid (Moa Khouas) and his affair with Chief Fawal’s daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach), which has to be conducted clandestinely because Fawal has already promised her to another man; while at the same time Khalid is meeting at a mosque led by a jihad preacher and slowly getting recruited into a terrorist organization plotting something. We spend the whole movie assuming that this is happening in parallel with the main action — over the same period of time, merely intercut according to what have been the standard conventions of cinema since Edwin S. Porter and D. W. Griffith — and it’s only at the end, when the Khalid-and-Fatima plot line leads back to the square that the original explosion took place in, we find [spoiler alert!] that all of this happened before the main action and this plot strand leads up to the explosion that sets off (pardon the pun) the other.

That put a real damper on what was otherwise a pretty good movie, well acted by its motley collection of American movie stars and non-American actors representing the Middle Easterners, and the ending (Anwar finally released from his “rendition” and returned to his wife, son, and his new baby — thank goodness Kelley Sane, despite her embrace of quite a few of the old movie clichés, at least avoided the temptation to have Mrs. Ibrahimi miscarry and lose the baby under the stress of her husband’s disappearance) seems unduly pat to me and neatly dodges the question of what his time under torture was going to do to Anwar’s character and his devotion to American ideals. How does someone who’s been treated that way avoid becoming a terrorist himself?