Friday, September 28, 2007

Sneak Preview Review: Rendition

As a member of the media I was invited to see a sneak preview of the movie Rendition, which, as the title might suggest, is about the process of “rendition” which is when the U.S. ships captives overseas to be tortured for information, supposedly by “other” countries, but in reality by the U.S., likely from CIA or CIA contractors. I’m calling them “captives” (the movie doesn’t) because to call them prisoners would mean they have a legal status when the whole point of rendition is that is a non-legal process.

Because the movie isn’t out yet, I will make my review spoiler-free, although once it’s been released I might revisit it for a longer review.

In short, I’m torn because I’m glad a movie about rendition was made, but unfortunately this movie muddles its message somewhat. A friend who watched the movie with me said this was a very “Hollywood” version of this issue, with all the sharp edges rounded over with pretty people and easy endings. It’s also a shame because there are a lot of very talented actors, from Meryl Streep to Alan Arkin who aren’t given much to do by the script.

The plot involves an Egyptian-born but American-raised man, Anwar El-Ibrahim. (He came to the U.S. when he was 14, yet the character, played by Omar Metwally, has a British accent.) He's a family man married to a very pregnant Reese Witherspoon.

There is a bombing in an unidentified North African country, and shortly there after we see Meryl Streep’s character, with little internal debate or struggle, order the detention of El-Ibrahim who is grabbed and black-bagged after walking off a flight to Chicago.

For a movie about rendition, or extraordinary rendition as its sometimes called, it’s pretty generic about details of the experience. Granted not many “rendered” people have returned to talk about it, but a few have. Read about the Canadian Maher Arar’s experience who was sent to Syria for torture. Part of the problem with the movie is that it keeps itself at a distance from the torture, never letting the viewer become too uncomfortable with what’s on the screen.

I’m really curious why torture-porn movies like Saw III and Hostel can be more graphic and disturbing than movies that depict what kinds of ACTUAL TORTURE that was done to real human beings. (That El-Ibrahim is fictional doesn’t matter. The point is this is happening and has happened. Even today we have no real guarantees, other than President Bush’s word, that the black sites are totally closed down.) Because the torture scenes are blunted, it also makes it harder to really get agitated about what we’re being shown.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays a CIA analyst who is running his first interrogation. The movie follows his perspective most of the time rather than El-Ibrahim’s (who’s almost a by-stander). Gyllenhaal is a good actor and does what he can, but the problem is that the movie isn’t knowledgeable enough to be really insidery (the way Syrianna felt) and it’s not idealistic enough to be artistic. There’s also not much blame pointed to the current administration, who, let’s be honest, is the one currently using these methods. Clinton is name-dropped somewhat conspicuously yet Bush’s name, or the names of anyone currently or formerly in power, is not. The 9-11 Commission Report is also name-checked but without a real sense of place or timing, the movie is somewhat ajar from the “real” world. What we’re left with is a kind of generic story which we’re likely supposed to side with Gyllenhaal, who reminds mostly a bland cipher.

The other half of the movie involves Reese Witherspoon’s character’s efforts to find her husband, mostly contacting a former boyfriend played by Peter Sarsgaard who works in a Senator’s office. Alan Arkin plays a senator and gets in a couple of good scenes, but is also mostly underused.

While I understand the idea of using a sympathetic (and pregnant) wife and son to make the victim seem human, the reality is there is little for them to do other than sit and worry. The wife manages to figure out what happens to her husband in fairly short order (which is somewhat pointless because the audience knows what the character doesn’t) and the rest of the movie toggles between her scenes, and those with Gyllenhaal.

There is also a subplot involving two teenagers in the unidentified North African country, which is tied into the plot. Its this subplot though, that muddles the message one would think the film-makers want to send, that rendition is not something we should be deploying. Instead it almost seems to suggest we simply need to grab the right suspects.

The ending also lets the audience off the hook in an entirely unrealistic fashion.

The more I think about the more this movie leaves me confused as to the intentions of the film. Does it want to be a debate on the issue of torture and rendition, or does it want the viewer to firmly come down against the process? If it’s the former, the points of debate should be much sharper and if it’s the later, I think the filmmakers blew it.

By the way, the debate about whether the U.S. should use torture or should it use rendition are two separate discussions. Torture is happening both on and off U.S. soil these days. And the difference between black sites and Guantanamo might be only a matter of degrees.

The movie is good for at least being an attempt to showcase this issue, and I’ve often thought that only fiction, not documentaries, will be the way to shift public debate. But I keep waiting for there to be a new version of The Crucible that will deal with the torture issue. Perhaps I’m expecting too much, but if there is going to be a truly insightful movie about torture, its likely only going to appear after people (read Hollywood) feel whatever “danger” international terrorists pose has passed. The fact that the Rendition vaguely implies that such methods might be useful, is a cop-out.
The movie comes out October 13.


Farah-Abi said...

On most of your points I completely disagree. For one thing you say the the audience isn't give a full view of the torture but we see the suspect being stripped naked, beaten, hung by his arms, water-boarded and given electrical shocks.

This isn't enough for you? On the issue of torture we see the techniques being used on a sympathetic character, it made me very uncomfortable I am surprised you didn't think it was enough.

In terms of how the movie deals with the actual issue of rendition is pretty clear. I don't know how much clearer it could get or what else it could have done as a film/piece or art and not a factual non-fiction piece. I do agree that it was glaring that there was no mention of Bush and that the political issue was somewhat sanitized, I completely understand that and think that was a studio influencing the film.

I also felt that the Reese Witherspoon character was correctly portrayed as deperate to find her husband and there wasn't much else she could do.

I think the film was trying to send two messages: First, that torture does not give you the truth you seek only what you want your victim to say; they will say anything to make it stop. Second, that these acts will continue until someone is courageous enough to stand up and put a stop to it.

It's certainly not a perfect film but those messages were political enough for me.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Newscat, in light of the first comment, I bet you think my points are usually pretty reasonable, comparatively.

Jim in Cleveland

Anonymous said...

We should love terrorists, and hug them more. I can understand why they butcher civilians. I also support any movie that makes it more difficult for anyone in the West to interrogate these misunderstand Islamists.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to make you aware if you were not yet, that Maher Arar will be speaking in a US Congressional hearing
specifically focused on his case this Thursday, Oct 18th at 2pm. The hearing is being held by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and is entitled "Rendition to Torture: The Case of Maher Arar"

For more information see

NewsCat said...

Thanks Ed...I see he's speaking via videoconference. I can certainly see why he'd never want to step foot in the U.S. again. But I've also thought there was some bullshit about the US refusing to grant him a travel visa?