October 23, 2007


“This is my first torture,” Jake Gyllenhaal’s rookie CIA agent Douglas Freeman tells hard-nosed Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep) over the phone. That ultra-provocative line alone is reason enough to see this interesting, very watchable political thriller.  

On his way back from a business conference in South Africa, chemical engineer Anwar El-Ibrahimi disappears. As it happens, he has been targeted as a terrorism suspect, since a suicide bomb has been detonated whilst he was on his flight, and thus “extraordinary rendition” is put into practice: the questionable CIA action of shipping anyone suspected to be involved in terrorism to overseas detention centres, where they will then be, er, interrogated. “America does not torture anyone” is Whitman’s reply to Freeman’s statement. Really? Admittedly, those who do torture Anwar are from “North Africa” (where the bomb went off), seemingly a newly devised country done so especially for this film. And they do torture. First removing all items of clothing, then using such methods as waterboarding and electrocution. Lovely.

Understandably, Anwar’s heavily pregnant wife Isabella is very worried at her husband’s no-show. Enlisting the help of ex-flame and current senatorial aide Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard), she tries desperately to find out what has happened to Anwar, with the awful truth no too far away. This is the cue for several taut face-offs between the main characters, noticeably Smith and Whitman.

And it wouldn’t work without strong acting, which fortunately the film has in abundance. Streep as Whitman is excellent (when is she not?), lips pursed and words chosen carefully. She is the embodiment of America’s political hierarchy, maintaining that countering violence with violence is often the only way to win, no matter how extreme. Another layer is added in the subplot of Senator Hawkins (Alan Arkin) trying to win the upcoming election, meaning that his right-hand man Smith has to be conservative, diplomatic at all times. He can’t jeopardise his boss’ status by pushing a matter that would rather be kept quiet. As mainstream Hollywood thrillers go, this is far deeper than many would dare.

One can see why Witherspoon and Gyllenhaal were cast. Both with piercing blue eyes radiating emotion through the simplest expressions, they are both exceptional screen actors. But most importantly they are all-American. How can Anwar be a terrorist? He may be Egyptian-born, but now lives in Chicago and is married to Reese Witherspoon. Surely that is enough of a reason to be considered truly American? And Gyllenhaal, the young operative in a foreign continent, is the man who fights back against orders, finding his feet and his morals. He is really very good indeed.

Gavin Hood, director of the brilliant African drama Tsotsi, keeps things going nicely, with the right amount of emotion. The film is conceived in the way that all films of this genre now seem to be – intersecting lives, intertwining storylines. And I must say that there is one surprising and rather ingenious narrative twist in one of the many subplots.

All in all, it’s actually quite a good film. But Rendition falls painfully short on its main subject: it has no stance on extraordinary rendition. Is it right or wrong? Does it save lives or create yet more enemies? The film doesn’t just leave it open, but completely unanswered. It’s a shame that it has missed this opportunity, because otherwise it’s an involving drama. And that line – you may laugh at the time (I did), but it will scar you.


3.5/5 political eggshells


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