After overblown stories of walkouts by critics during its Toronto International Film Festival debut, Rendition actually contains more than enough substance, momentum and drama to satisfy audiences looking for a decent, politically charged thriller.
Reese Witherspoon plays Isabella, the pregnant wife of Egyptian American Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), a chemical engineer who gets abducted by American soldiers after he returns from a business convention in South Africa. El-Ibrahimi is secreted to a North African dungeon where local police kingpin Abasi gleefully tortures him with the tacit assistance of CIA officer Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who survived the suicide bombing that gave rise to El-Ibrahimi’s abduction.
Isabella discovers duty-free charges on her husband’s credit card refuting the airline’s claim that El-Ibrahimi was never on his return flight. Then she visits former college friend Alan (Peter Sarsgaard) in Washington D.C. where he now works as an aide to Senator Hawkins (Alan Arkin). Running parallel to Isabella’s quest to locate her missing husband, and the barbarous abuse he suffers abroad, is the backstory of the suicide bombing as it relates to the policeman Abasi’s romantically confused daughter, who mistakenly dates a terrorist.
Audiences concerned that Rendition errs on the side of bleeding-heart liberals can take solace in the film’s willingness to cast blame for the origin of “extraordinary rendition”–the kidnapping of terrorist suspects by American intelligent officers–on former President Bill Clinton. Humanitarians will find encouragement in the film’s scathing tone that takes casts torture, secret or otherwise, as an impotent method for discovering evidence.
Gyllenhaal’s increasingly sensitive CIA agent does some impressive thematic dart throwing by quoting Shakespeare on the subject in the third act, lest anyone forget that the subject of torture has been well chewed over by stronger minds in world history.
Suspicion is a powerful deceiver that turns a quick circle back to its creator. At the helm of the CIA rendition program is Corrinne Whitman (Meryl Streep), a brainwashed black widow ideologue whose views on terrorism prevention ironically align with Abasi’s extrermely limited sense of justice. Director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) does a serviceable job with upstart screenwriter Kelley Sane’s written-on-the-wall script.
Supporting cast members Alan Arkin and Streep suffer from underwritten roles, but the actors appropriately emphasize their characters’ egos as guiding beacons of damning hubris. They are people who live in self-promoted private hells that they’re only too happy to impose on others.
Rendition comes out in a season of “R”? word film titles (Redacted and Reservation Road, for instance) set to assault cinema marquees with bloody threads of alliteration. What these films share is the death of young people by mechanized forces. Cars, bullets and bombs dismantle human life with an abstract force and logic that most people can comprehend, if not rationalize, in a way that lets those responsible off the hook.
Rendition is the best of the three movies because it’s a humanitarian film rather than a political one, even though that subtext is present. It might not rise to the complexity of Syriana, but it isn’t a flimsy movie either. MTW