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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