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Rendition's descent into fairy tale

Review by Nicole Colson | November 2, 2007 | Page 11

Rendition, directed by Gavin Hood, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Reese Witherspoon, Omar Metwally and Meryl Streep.

RENDITION ISN'T a horrible movie. It's well shot, and even artful at moments. Its attractive cast gives solid, and sometimes unsettling, performances. And in many ways, it's on the right side politically.

And yet, ultimately, a film that should be solidly grounded in horrifying fact--the U.S. government's kidnapping of suspected "terrorists" around the globe, and their removal for interrogation in countries known to practice torture--descends into fairy tale realms that ultimately distract from some of the very points it sets out to make.

Rendition tells the story of Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), an Egyptian-born chemical engineer living in Chicago with his pregnant American wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) and their son. Following a bombing in an unnamed North African country in which a CIA official is killed, El-Ibrahimi is kidnapped by the U.S. government on his way back from an overseas business trip.

He is hooded, shackled and erased from the passenger list of the plane. He is then flown overseas--"rendered" for interrogation and torture at the hands of police chief Abasi Fawal, while CIA agent Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is instructed to "supervise" by his bosses in Washington.

The rest of the film cuts between Isabella's frustrating search for any explanation from government officials about her husband's whereabouts, and the harrowing torture of Anwar. All of this should be compelling--and it frequently is, especially the scenes set in Washington.

Peter Sarsgaard is interesting as a political aide called on by Witherspoon to help find her husband. And the underused Alan Arkin gives a good turn as a liberal senator who balks at publicly challenging the policies of rendition for fear of the political price.

Yet the film undermines itself, particularly with its treatment of Gyllenhaal's character--who becomes the "hero" of the film. Freeman--who, we're told, joined the CIA "on September 12"--is always set apart from the more brutal CIA "knuckledraggers" (as well as the icy Sen. Corrine Whitman--Meryl Streep--who directs the rendition) and from the Arab police.

Freeman has an Arab girlfriend and pronounces Arabic names with flair. He's shown grimacing during every torture session--and interrupting at several points when the brutality becomes too much. And ultimately, he becomes a champion for Anwar in a way that is totally implausible.

Though there have been, even among the Bush administration, CIA and Justice Department officials who have spoken out against torture, the lengths to which Freeman goes in order to "do the right thing" are beyond far-fetched.

The torture scenes are realistic and difficult to watch, and the acting by Metwally is especially good--showing how a detainee could easily be swayed through desperation, confusion and pain to make up any lie in order to stop his torture. But, troublingly, the initial torture scenes are interspersed with scenes of an underground mosque, where a radical imam exhorts young men to kill "zionists" and "infidels."

The effect is overwhelming: instead of blaming the U.S. government for the torture of El-Ibrahimi, it appears as though the problem is just "overzealous Arabs." Also troubling is how the movie constantly stresses how "Americanized" El-Ibrahimi is (a graduate of NYU who speaks perfect English, with an American wife)--as if we should be upset because this is happening to someone so "American," and not because this is the official policy of the U.S. government, period.

In reality, most victims of rendition do not live in America. They're not Westerners with pretty American wives who have political connections. And they certainly do not have well-meaning white-knight CIA agents there to help end their torture.

Rendition might affect audiences who are ambivalent about torture. For anyone else, however, its contradictions undermine its impact.

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