A film review by Craig J. Koban

RENDITION jj
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2007, R, 120 mins.

Douglas: Jake Gyllenhaal / Isabella: Reese Witherspoon / Anwar: Omar Metwally / Corrinne: Meryl Streep / Sen. Hawkins: Alan Arkin / Alan: Peter Sarsgaard

Directed by Gavin Hood / Written by Kelley Sane

What makes the new political thriller RENDITION all the more unpleasant to sit through is the fact that it is a great film tapped in a mediocre body.

It certainly contains issues that anyone in our post-9/11 world would find deeply relevant and ones that certainly could usher in a serious amount of heated debate.  Without a doubt, the central debate in RENDITION is one that is easy to describe, but utterly complex in terms of solving.  The problem I had with the film is that it tackles such large scale and morally convoluted dilemmas with such broad and naive strokes.

That’s a shame, because RENDITION does have a lot going for it: A-list stars giving very good performances, a strong director with a vision, and a central theme that clearly strikes a cord with viewers.  Yet, no amount of star presence and a keen and consummate directorial eye can save a film that does not probe its issues thoroughly from a variety of vantage points.  Instead of truly looking at both sides of its central debate, RENDITION emerges like one of those pedestrian, TV movies of the week that tries to make up our minds for us with its preachy handling of the material.  I think that the best films are ones that allow viewers to make up their own minds by giving us many perspectives of a debate.  What RENDITION does is essentially eliminate that whole process: it pains to tell us who’s right and who’s wrong.  That makes for flaccid drama.

To be sure, RENDITION certainly speaks on a highly relevant issue for our time, not to mention one of the most controversial.  On a simple level, the film poses one basic conundrum: Is it moral and ethical for a country to detain people that the think are terrorists or are harboring terrorists in an effort to starve off a future terrorist attack?  For example, if the US was able to capture a man that had ties to Osama Bin Laden before 9/11 and - through torturing the man - were able to secure information that could have stopped the Twin Towers from being destroyed, could this course of action be deemed as necessary or morally correct? 

RENDITION poses this argument clearly, but it handles it with such a disregard to looking at both vantage points.  Torture and detainment without probable cause - not to mention without a trial and conviction - is certainly wrong, but what if valuable intelligence that was gathered through this very method led to thousands of lives being saved?  At one point one of the film’s characters wisely points out that she sleeps better at night knowing that these types of methods have saved enumerable lives, which, in turn, can be seen as justified.  After all, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one...right?

Then again...maybe not.  "Extreme rendition" refers to an American policy that describes the extrajudicial transfer of a person from one place to another.  In other words, American government agents capture "detainees", charges them with no crime and gives them no options for legal council or a trial, and ships them to prisons off of US soil where they can be tortured as a way of eliciting information.  It does not matter even if these people are terrorists or not, but what is important is their ties to terrorism.  In 2006 US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated that her country does not engage in a policy of transferring and torturing prisoners.  Critics around the world beg to differ because the whole issue brings up looming moral, legal, and political rights.  After all, doesn’t the Constitution have any say in the immorality and legality of these practices?

As you can see, there are no easy answers here, but RENDITION opts for an easy way out.  It’s one of those thoughtless political thrillers that pains to take broad pot shots at the US government (US Government = immoral and bad for torturing people) and painting the captives in an overwhelmingly sympathetic light (detainees = good and maltreated).  This choice is wrong in the sense that it is hopeless gullible.  Torture is cruel and wrong in most cases, yes, but if a country could prevent another 9/11, is it justifiable and right?

See what I mean?  There simply is no quickly arrived at agreeable consensus here.  But the film seems to take a forceful stance that rendition is a gross misuse of power and authority.  The film’s story is sort of methodically structured to support its argument.  The film opens in South Africa where an Egyptian-American named Anwar El-ibrahimi (played very well in a thankless performance by Omar Metwally) is boarding a plane to return home to Chicago to his pregnant wife, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon, decent in an under-developed role) and young son.  Meanwhile, in a unidentified South African country, a CIA analyst named Douglas Freeman (the always dependable Jake Gyllenhaal) is investigating a terrorist bombing that brutally killed his partner.

Back at home a senior CIA officer, Corrine Whitman (played with an introverted level of mean spiritedness by Meryl Streep), is given evidence (in the form of phone records) that Anwar received several cell phone calls from the terrorist that is claiming responsibility in the attacks.  She then quickly orders that Anwar is to be captured and taken away to a North African prison (which looks like a dungeon) where Freeman is ordered to simply observe his interrogation (aka: torture) by the locals who hope to get some valuable Intel from him.  Of course, Anwar is ruthlessly tortured and steadfastly professes innocence.  This, predictably, makes Freeman think he is innocent, despite the fact that there is serious and palpable evidence to link him to terrorism.  Perhaps Freeman’s naiveté gets the better of him at times, but he at least asks some interesting questions of Anwar’s torturers, as he does when he addresses one by saying, "In all the years you've been doing this, how often can you say that we've produced truly legitimate intelligence?  Once?  Twice?  Ten times?  Give me a statistic; give me a number."

On the home front, Isabella grows increasingly upset and disturbed by her husband's disappearance.  She has proof that he boarded his airplane, but he seems to have mysteriously disappeared mid-flight.  She decides to dig for answers and meets up with an old friend (who was also an old boyfriend, played well by Peter Sarsgaard), who uses his connections to a US senator (played in a brief, but excellent, performance by Alan Arkin) to get some clues.  Of course, Alan manages to find out Anwar’s real location and fate, which prompts him to confront Whitman in the film’s best scenes.  Whitman, getting distraught with Alan’s pestering, tells him at one point, "Why don't you ask your boss how badly he really does want to stick his neck out for a terrorist." He responds rather modestly by stating, "Well, he might for due process.  Maybe I should have a copy of the Constitution sent to your office."

Scenes like that have real credibility and insight into the polarizing issue, but they are few and far between in RENDITION.  Well, we also get the obligatory standoff between Isabella and Whitman in a scene that does a good job of making us understand the mind set of both parties.  Clearly, Isabella wants to know where her husband is and has a right to know, but Whitman also has validity in her words that her job and choices, at times, can place her in a position to save thousands of lives.  These moments are juxtaposed with scenes of Anwar’s torture while pleading innocence, which comes across as being a bit manipulative.  Also - S P O I L E R   A L E R T - at one point Anwar does admit to being an accomplice to the terrorist and then later it is revealed - with the help of a Google search - that he did not.  Of course, this plot choice serves one soul purpose: Anwar was tortured to the point of admitting guilt for something he did not do, thus, admonishing him and making the US government the villain.  Yet, what if he was actually guilty?  Would the film still staunchly debunk rendition of change its gears midstream?

I grew increasingly despondent while watching RENDITION for the way it sort of lacked a level head, not to mention for the manner with which it takes an easy political stance without much serious investigation into such a hot button issue.  The film also suffers from a genuine lack of focus.  It strays awkward all over the place: It has the plot involving Isabella’s battles at home; a plot about Freeman’s dire choices while overseeing Anwar’s torture; a plot involving Anwar’s torturers and his family; and yet another plot involving the people involved in the terrorist bombing and what lead them to their actions alongside that of one of the terrorists and the love of his life.  The latter mentioned story threads, to make matters even more confusing, are interweaved within the other story threads, but take place in the past, something that is not immediately clear.  If anything, RENDITION could have benefited from a script re-write.

The film’s director, a South African named Gavin Hood, is a gifted and promising filmmaker (he made the 2005 Best Foreign language Film, TSOTSI, and will soon be making the X-MEN spin-off, WOLVERINE).  RENDITION also benefits from a fine and stellar cast, whom are all universally solid with their respective performances (I especially liked the noble and soft spoken perseverance that Sarsgaard gives to his role, not to mention how Streep is able to play a power suit wearing, bitch in heels with such an underplayed economy of emotions).  Unfortunately, the film gets too bogged down in its own preachy agenda and never once emerges as a compelling and arresting probing of a delicate debate on the nature of torture, human rights, and personal responsibility.  As I left the theatre after watching the film I was thinking of something one of my philosophy professors told me in college:

No serious moral and ethical debate of our time has narrowly defined answers.

In RENDITION’S case, its debate is limitlessly convoluted, but resolved too expeditiously and tenuously for its own good.  It's a simple open and shut case of a would-be great film being squandered by lazy writing.

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