VIDEO: The trailer for Rendition
“We don’t torture.” President Bush says it again and again, and since it’s not true, it’s impossible to know exactly what he means. Maybe he means that Americans do not personally inflict torture — other people do it for us and we observe it, the same way we see it in a movie. Movies about torture put us in the same position as spectators that George W. Bush puts us in as citizens.
|Rendition | Directed by Gavin Hood | Written by Kelley Sane | with Omar Metwally, Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Meryl Streep, Igal Naor, Zineb Oukach, and Moa Kouas | New Line | 122 minutes|
It’s ironic, and probably auspicious for its box office, that Rendition comes out a week after the Supreme Court refused to hear the case of Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen abducted in 2003 and tortured in a secret CIA-run prison before being deemed innocent and released. The Court’s refusal, a de facto admission of guilt, hides the truth, which returns a week later fictionalized on movie screens. That’s fast, and it’s a noteworthy coincidence. But Rendition is not a good movie. It’s more a globalized banality product, extruded, character-stuffed, and shipped through many lands.
The plot mirrors the el-Masri case. The CIA mistakes Egyptian-American family man Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) for a terrorism suspect with a similar name, abducts him at an airport, and ships him to a prison in an unnamed North African country. There, he’s tortured by local police under the troubled gaze of a reluctant CIA bureau chief played by Jake Gyllenhaal, an audience stand-in whose necktie loosens and disappears as the enhanced interrogation of his innocent captive goes on day after day.
Back in the States, Anwar’s pregnant wife, Isabella “Izzy” El-Ibrahimi (Reese Witherspoon, the “El” left over from her name in the Legally Blonde movies), frets over her husband’s disappearance. With the help of an old flame (Peter Sarsgaard) who’s now a senator’s assistant, she elbows her way into the presence of CIA terrorism chief Meryl Streep, a Cheneyite dragon lady so wed to policy that she dispatched Anwar without a second thought, snapping, “Put him on the plane!”, like a TV cop barking, “Take him downtown!”
Oh, and the local police torturer (Igal Naor, a veritable Kojak of torture) has family problems: his teenage daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach) loves a fledgling suicide bomber (Moa Khouas) who’s planning to blow up the town square. In true hyperlink fashion, the film’s plot hinges on the tragic fate of this pair.
Gavin Hood, South African director of the Oscar-winning Tsotsi (2005), films this plot-heavy soap opera in the style of Babel and Syriana, with dust specks in the Third World light, a blue coldness in the First World air. Ping-ponging between countries, Hood’s actors bounce unsmilingly, abandoned in an inflatable ride. Witherspoon, huge-bellied, is reduced to lamentations of need-speak that would sink any actor.
A better comparison might be with The Devil Wears Prada. Gyllenhaal plays the Anne Hathaway part and Streep is the evil boss, who, just as in Prada, removes her glasses when we’re meant to gasp at her defeat. And just as in that movie, there’s a climactic cellphone conversation near flowing water in a foreign land.
But wish-fulfillment versions of the CIA and the mainstream media save the day. Rendition ends on the kind of psycho-Spielberg fantasy moment we’ve come to dread in Hollywood movies, an enforced happy ending that’s just as unconscionable a violation as the torture the film decries, and more difficult to watch.