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Rendition (A Movie Review)

Updated: May 8, 2023


Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Reese Witherspoon, Peter Sarsgaard, Meryl Streep, Alan Arkin, Omar Metwally, Igal Naor, Moa Khouas, Zineb Oukach, Aramis Knight, Rosie Malek-Yonan and J.K. Simmons.

Screenplay by Kelley Sane.

Directed by Gavin Hood.

Distributed by New Line Cinema. 120 minutes. Rated R.

Rendition is a movie which wears its political convictions on its sleeve.

This doesn't mean that it does not make an important point about life in the post-Iraq America, nor that they are in any way incorrect in their absolute rejection of the inhuman practice known as "extraordinary rendition." It just means that the film has an agenda and a point it is determined to make.

Whether it makes it successfully, I suppose, all depends on your side of the debate – though I find it hard to believe that anyone can be pro-torture, though as Donald Rumsfeld and Alberto Gonzales have proven, those people are out there.

The policy of extraordinary rendition was actually created during the Clinton administration – as the screenplay is careful to point out – but at the time it was only supposed to be for extraordinary cases. In recent years, though, it seems to have become more and more ordinary, as proven by Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

Essentially, it allows the government to send suspected terrorists to prisons outside of the United States, for an indefinite amount of time, without an attorney, without notifying their families, without any Geneva Convention rights – and allow people not necessarily tied to the government to try to gather information from them in any way necessary. Torture, starvation, solitary confinement, humiliation – none of these are off the table.

Rendition, quite simply, is a dramatization of this quandary. It looks at what happened from many sides, but essentially it is the story of one man.

In the beginning of the film, a suicide bomber destroys a square in an unnamed African country. The target was a government strongman for the local government (Igal Naor) and amongst the dead is a CIA agent who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This sets off a whole series of events, some of which lead to an Egyptian-born American named Anwar (Omar Metwally) who is returning to his pregnant wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) and son from a business trip in Cape Town. Apparently, he received some phone calls from a cell phone that was believed to belong to the terrorist responsible for the bombing. When his flight touches down, he is kidnapped in a scene that is shocking in its casual simplicity. One moment he is there. The next he is gone.

Despite the fact that there is no real evidence, and he passed his lie detector test, the neo-con head of the program (Meryl Streep) assures that Anwar is flown to the African country for interrogation.

The partner of the dead agent, a pencil-pushing desk jockey (Jake Gyllenhaal) with not that much field experience, is given the responsibility of observing the interrogations, but the more he sees the man tortured, the more the agent is sure that the prisoner is indeed innocent.

There is also an ongoing subplot about the interrogator's young daughter having a relationship with a rebellious teen -- a thread that at first seems extraneous but eventually becomes indelibly woven into the story.

There is some wonderful acting on display here, and yet with the terrific cast it seems like they could have done even more. Witherspoon in particular is very good with what she has – but she doesn't get nearly enough time or things to do. Streep, as always, is wonderful in a display of chicken-hawk – and yet we've seen her do this role before.

The two most powerful performances were by lesser-known actors: Metwally and Naor singe their better-known co-stars with their intensity. It's probably not a good thing that the most interesting and multi-layered character here is the torturer, but Naor commands every scene he is in.

In the end, Rendition takes a vital and divisive controversy and plays it a little too safe. It is a heartrending and scary film, but it could have been even more.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2007 All rights reserved. Posted: October 19, 2007.

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