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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Rendition (review)

Simple Story, Hard Truths

Okay, maybe it’s a tad too Hollywoodized. Maybe the ending is a tad too upbeat, a tad too facile to be satisfying or even believable in a story based so closely on horrific reality. But maybe that’s okay for the moment. Maybe it will take blond pregnant Reese Witherspoon sobbing over her missing husband and handsome conflicted Jake Gyllenhaal getting his conscience pricked to wake people the hell up. Maybe just a little bit of pandering is exactly what we need right now.
Because this is actually happening, right now: people are being arrested on circumstantial evidence or none at all, denied access to lawyers, shipped to overseas secret prisons, detained indefinitely without charge, tortured. The lucky ones get released, eventually, and then get their furious lawsuits against the federal government dismissed by the courts. As for the unlucky ones… well, we don’t know yet. This fuckin’ Nazi shit is happening on American soil, to American citizens and legal residents, perpetrated by American law enforcement — and it embarrasses me to have to repeat it for the small percentage of the American public that is informed enough to be aware of it, but it embarrasses me even more to know that for way too many Americans, their first exposure to this howling injustice will be Rendition.

But if that’s what it takes, I say we go for it.

Isabella Fields El-Ibrahimi (Witherspoon: Just Like Heaven, Walk the Line) can’t find her husband, Anwar (Omar Metwally), an immigrant from Egypt who has lived, legally, in the U.S. since he was a teenager. He seems to have disappeared without a trace while en route from South Africa, where he was attending a professional conference, to their home in Chicago. She’s distraught, of course, in a pretty, made-for-Lifetime female-empowerment-drama kind of way, but fortunately, she has a contact in the office of a U.S. senator, her old college friend Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard: Jarhead, Flightplan), so she pretty rapidly learns what has probably happened to her husband.

We’ve been witnessing it, of course: his snatching by federal agents as he changes planes in Washington, an “arrest” that can only be called a kidnapping; his fear at being accused of something he has not done (made bombs for terrorists) and the growing horror as he begins to realize how totally fucked he is as he gets caught up in the indiscriminate maw of the “War on Terror”: No lawyers for you, pal, the feds are delighted to inform him, and no call to the wife. Instead, he is flown off to North Africa, forcibly stripped of his clothes, and thrown into a coffinlike “cell” when he isn’t being tortured. That word — torture — gets tossed around in lots of metaphoric ways, but there’s nothing metaphoric about the sensory deprivation, simulated drowning, and electrocution he endures. These scenes are pretty graphic for a Hollywood film and they will leave you squirming, but every American should be forced to watch this movie, if only for these scenes, in order to see what is being done in our name, and in the name of, supposedly, freedom and justice.

It’s actually all a bit too easy to get outraged by all this: who wants to see a handsome man, a complete innocent, a loving father and husband like Anwar get abused? Sure, it’s a good defense against the idiots who know all about the end of civil liberties in America but dismiss it because, they’re deluded enough to think, “you don’t have to worry if you’re innocent” — Anwar’s story, and many of the real-life tales that inspired it, prove that innocence is no protection. The much harder story, and perhaps one even more vitally necessary, is the one that explains why the guilty deserve their civil rights: but I suppose Rendition would have been an even tougher sell if Anwar looked like Osama Bin Laden and we witnessed him barbecuing and eating white babies and fluffy kittens.

Rendition is a baby step toward waking people up. I can live with that. I can live, too, with the too-easy story of CIA analyst Douglas Freeman (Gyllenhaal: Zodiac, Brokeback Mountain), who observes Anwar’s interrogation in the North African secret prison headed up by Abasi Fawal (Yigal Naor) and may be eventually coming around to decide this is bullshit.

I like much more how the screenplay and direction — by, respectively, Hollywood first-timers Kelley Sane and Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, the first film from South Africa to win an Oscar) — don’t fetishize the suicide bombing that sets the plot in motion, don’t ignore the truth (extraordinary rendition “started under Clinton,” one character says), and don’t overplay the villainy of even the villains, like Meryl Streep’s (Evening, The Devil Wears Prada) CIA honcho; with her clean white house and sleek white suits, she is evil at its most banal. I like how the subplot of Fawal’s teenage daughter (Zineb Oukach) and her unapproved-of boyfriend (Moa Khouas: Lila Says (Lila Dit Ca)) works in a sneaky, satisfying way to highlight the endless cycles of injustice and retribution that fuel so much of the violence we live with (much as The Kingdom does).

And I like that the most important issues raised are unstated: Do American ideals stop at our borders? Are the politics of compromise valid, and surely there are things about which there can be no compromise? If the “War on Terror” is, clearly, not about preserving and defending American freedom — just the opposite — what is it for, anyway? Isn’t every right our government strips from us — strips from us illegally, even treasonously — in the name of fighting terrorists just another victory for the terrorists?

If it takes a simplistic Hollywood movie to finally get the mainstream American public asking these questions for themselves, I’m all for it.

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MPAA: rated R for torture/violence and language

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
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  • Icy Truth

    When you write: “every American should be forced to watch this movie”, I wonder if you see the irony in making such an autocratic statement. Maybe those who resist being ‘forced’ can watch it while strapped to a water-board.

  • Moe

    As a 21 year old Canadian raised on a steady diet of the just and good America standing up against bastards across the globe via hollywood movies for over a decade, it pains me that your country is doing this. America’s moral high ground is lost and the world’s only superpower is no longer trusted to stand up for human rights.

    What astounds me even more is that there are millions of Americans who know of this but dismiss it ’cause you guys are fighting a war on a tactic. These Americans who berate the liberal left and hollywood for living in an idealized world and “hating America” strike me as the most unpatriotic as they are so willing to slice apart the very foundations that made your country so great.

    I hope the universally loathed Bush administration will go down in history beside Nixon as one of the worst mistakes of American politics for his 7 years of slowly subverting (with apparent relish) everything your country once stood and was admired for.

  • WP

    Totally agree. Having just seen the movie, I agree with your assessment (or at least how I interpreted it): people should see this film, but it wasn’t REALLY good. The reason your “See It”, “Wait for DVD” and “Skip It” are refreshing is because they don’t grade movies as art–that appears in the review. My impression is not that these categories of yours are tiers of quality, necessarily, but suggestions as to when and where a particular movie is worth our time (e.g. Simpsons was good, but you don’t think seeing it in a theater would enhance the experience). Am I correct?

    I like your rating system on this one as opposed to that of Ebert, whose reviews I respect quite a bit. I read his four-star review of this film this morning. His point was basically yours as well: people should see this film. But he didn’t dwell on the craft of it or the strength of the story or the depth of the characters, as he usually does. Overlooking the flaws in the flick, he gave it a shining review (****) because he wanted to inject politics into his column and make sure people would see it; in the meantime, he compromised the integrity of the review. Meanwhile, you injected some politics (okay, a lot of politics) into your review while pointing out the movie’s weak points without affecting your rating.

    Who knows, though, since this all out of my ass and I can’t read the guy’s mind. But I’ve read too much of Ebert’s stuff (wow, that’s sad) to think he wasn’t fazed by the tone-deaf middle hour. Keep doing your thing, though, because I find it more helpful when I’m trying to decide whether to take the trouble to go to the theater.

  • ashok

    You might want to be a little more careful with the spoilers. One of the major reasons why I was interested in watching this movie was to see whether the Egyptian man was really a terrorist or not. The film could conceivably be a whole lot more interesting if he was. But given your mention of an upbeat ending and him being an innocent…it takes away from a lot of the tension I’m guess I would feel otherwise. Now the movie is much lower on my priority list to go to.

    At this point, I guess you could say that those aren’t spoilers but we’re going to have to agree to disagree on that. Also, if you were being ironic while calling him an innocent and he turns out not to be – well done, I eat my words.

  • MaryAnn

    When you write: “every American should be forced to watch this movie”, I wonder if you see the irony in making such an autocratic statement. Maybe those who resist being ‘forced’ can watch it while strapped to a water-board.

    Yeah, there’s no way that statement of mine could have been, oh, metaphoric. Or a deliberate exaggeration. Or poetic license. No way at all.

    Regarding spoilers. I did think quite a bit about how much to give away in the review (and how much it might be interpreted that I’m giving away), and I came to the conclusion that the relative merits (and lack thereof) of the film were too important an aspect of that to avoid. I feel like I spoiled as little as possible in contrast to how the plot relates to the film’s quality.

    My impression is not that these categories of yours are tiers of quality, necessarily, but suggestions as to when and where a particular movie is worth our time (e.g. Simpsons was good, but you don’t think seeing it in a theater would enhance the experience). Am I correct?

    Yes.

  • MikeW

    Its interesting the way this is being marketed over here (the UK) – it’s being portrayed as much more ambiguous on the rights and wrongs of rendition than your review indicates the film actually is.

    Its worrying isn’t it. Even when public opinion is about as vociferously against the War on Terror as its ever going to get the only films we get reflecting that fact have to have the sting pulled from them as much as possible. From what you say it doesn’t seem like the argument against Rendition is that it is wrong, just that it means we occasionally get the wrong guys with it.

    Its like the other argument used against torture I hear a lot – that the information we get from it is often inaccurate. I just really don’t think the innocence of the people involved, or the accuracy of the information really has any moral bearing on whether torture is right or wrong.

    Sorry, that was kind of ranty.

  • MaryAnn

    I don’t think the film is AT ALL ambiguous on the subject of rendition: it seems to me that the film comes out on the side that it’s always wrong.

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