Sunday, March 02, 2008

Rendition: Grade A

Rendition (2007)
Omar Metwally, Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Moa Khouas, Zineb Oukach, Yigal Naor, Meryl Streep, Peter Sarsgaard, Alan Arkin. Director Gavin Hood.

This didactic movie describes the U.S. government practice of “rendition,” in which captured terrorist suspects can be transferred, without judicial process, to a prison outside the U.S. to be tortured. As the president and the secretary of state have repeatedly said, “America doesn’t do torture.” This movie shows how that may be literally true. CIA agent Gyllenhaal merely observes torture conducted by an Egyptian ally (Naor). An Egyptian man living in America (Metwally) has been captured, hooded and “rendered” to Egypt for torture on orders from hard-boiled CIA boss Streep. His wife, Witherspoon, appeals to her senator (Arkin) via his aide (Sarsgaard) for intervention but gets the “classified secrets” stonewall. In a completely separate story, a young Egyptian man (Khouas) becomes a suicide bomber when his brother is captured and tortured by Egyptian police.

The film is well-researched, well-made, and very well-acted, especially by Metwally and Naor. Streep speaks her acid lines with perfection. Sarsgaard gives a nuanced performance. Gyllenhaal’s character is under-written, so there’s not much for him to do, but his silent head nods are as good acting as you’ll see anywhere. Reese Witherspoon gives an amazing dramatic performance. Directing is deft, cinematography fully convincing, and the music is outstanding. It’s a first class movie all around, except…

There are two problems. One is that the time sequencing of the two stories is so chopped up that it is very close to being incomprehensible. It took me an hour to realize there were two separate stories, and until the three-quarters mark to realize that most of what I had seen had been flashback. The ending scenes don’t make a lot of sense unless you have been taking notes on a yellow pad. Two stories were not needed. The main rendition story would have been more than enough. Whether this was botched editing or poor planning from the beginning, the disjoint timeline torpedoes both stories.

Extra-cinematic criticism is inevitable for this politically and morally sensitive story. The message is clear: the U.S. does not obey its own or international laws, tortures people, and lies about it. Lip service is given to the countervailing argument that we should thank the government for protecting us from terrorists by whatever means prudent. It would have been a better movie if Metwally’s character had been more ambiguous, not an innocent victim of an inhuman, racist, immoral government. It is a “Shame on you, America” message, and though very well made, its political point is bound to alienate many.

No comments:

Post a Comment