This review was written for the festival screening of “Rendition.”
Toronto International Film Festival
TORONTO — In “Rendition,” a major moral and political issue confronting the American public runs up against the filmmakers’ commercial agenda. There is a crying need to publicly explore the U.S. government’s policy of “extraordinary renditions,” the abduction of foreign nationals deemed security threats and their transportation to overseas prisons for brutal interrogations. But “Rendition” tackles the concern in a heavy-handed thriller with simplistic characters and manipulative story lines.
The film, directed by Gavin Hood in his first outing following the Oscar-winning “Tsotsi,” aims for none of the moral ambiguity of Steven Spielberg’s examination of Israeli anti-terrorism in “Munich.” Rather he settles for a contrived melodrama, emotionally jerry-rigged to ensure audiences arrive at the proper conclusion.
The well-produced film, due for release October 19 by New Line, will attract considerable attention and commentary from non-entertainment media, so along with a solid cast of bankable young actors such as Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard and Reese Witherspoon the film should enjoy good boxoffice numbers opening week. Disappointed word-of-mouth, though, may prevent much carry over into the following weeks.
“Rendition” does little to resolve and even shed light on a program most Americans find morally repugnant but are divided on when it comes to its potential for preventing terrorist attacks. In the fictional case in question, the CIA clearly has the wrong guy from the get-go but, ratcheting up the emotional manipulation even more, the guy is an American green card holder who lives in Chicago with an American wife and child — make that a pregnant wife — whose only crime apparently is his Egyptian birth.
Meanwhile, the CIA head of anti-terrorism, played by Meryl Streep at her devilish worst, and the North African torturer (Igal Naor) are cartoon villains with just enough personality quirks to make them seem almost human. A thriller may have been the wrong way to go here because screenwriter Kelley Sane feels the need to up the tension and emotional ante further by playing a trick on the audience with the story’s structure and sequence of events.
A suicide bomb goes off in an unnamed North African city square, claiming as one of its victims a CIA case officer. The bewildered CIA has no real leads but nevertheless snatches a U.S. resident, Egyptian-born chemical engineer Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), from the Washington, D.C. airport moments after he arrives on a flight from Cape Town, South Africa. Their only evidence is a possibly coincidental use of cell phone number.
When the CIA understandably gets no information from him at the airport, he is hooded and dragged aboard a secret flight to the very country where the bomb went off for an appointment with a talented torturer.
This is where the movie ensnares itself in a particular sticky set of connections and circumstances of scant credibility. Anwar’s distraught wife (Witherspoon) just happens to have an old college friend — more than a friend, the movie implies — in Alan Smith (Sarsgaard), who is top deputy to her Illinois Senator (Alan Arkin), who just happens to be on a committee briefed weekly by the CIA anti-terrorist head (Streep) who ordered the rendition. So he is in prime position to learn all sorts of dirty state secrets for the wife.
Anwar’s torturer (Naor) just happens to have a rebellious daughter (Zineb Oukach) who is romantically involved with an Islamic militant (Moa Khouas) who is connected to the attack. It gets better. The dead CIA case officer is temporarily replaced by an analyst, Douglas Freeman (Gyllenhaal), who is so new to this game he still has a conscience and becomes sickened over the water-boarding and electric shocks delivered to a man who has no information to surrender.
Characters make political statements and stake out fierce positions that are meant to ponder the issue of torture in the name of anti-terrorism. Yet these arguments are mostly loaded by clearly appalled, liberal-minded filmmakers.
The reality of these situations is much messier. Victims seldom if ever have friends in high places. They are not U.S. residents, nor are they always guilt free. The real questions, touched upon ever so lightly here, concern the value of any information so derived, the violation of constitutional law by outsourcing dirty work and the potential for radicalizing moderate Islamic elements through these tactics.
The film also contains an unappetizing whiff of anti-Arab sentiment. The good Arab, the film’s victim, is thoroughly Westernized. But the old country Arabs are either American lackeys and therefore backward and sadistic or terrorists and therefore brainwashed fundamentalists and bigots.
The film benefits from good location work in Marrakech, Morocco, along with D.C. and Cape Town, a slick (perhaps too slick) production and a score infused with North African musical themes.
New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema presents in association with Level 1 Entertainment an Anonymous Content Production
Director: Gavin Hood
Writer: Kelley Sane
Producers: Steve Golin, Marcus Viscidi
Executive producers: Toby Emmerich, Keith Goldberg, David Kanter, Keith Redman, Michael Sugar, Edward Milstein, Bill Todman Jr., Paul Schwake
Director of photography: Dion Beebe
Production designer: Barry Robison
Costume designer: Michael Wilkinson
Music: Paul Hepker, Mark Kilian
Editor: Megan Gill
Douglas Freeman: Jake Gyllenhaal
Isabella El-Ibrahimi: Reese Witherspoon
Sen. Hawkins: Alan Arkin
Alan Smith: Peter Sarsgaard
Anwar El-Ibrahimi: Omar Metwally
Abasi Falwal: Igal Naor
Corrinne Whitman: Meryl Streep
No MPAA rating, running time 121 minutes