Rendition (United States/South Africa, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Much as I might like to, I cannot heap praise upon director Gavin Hood's Rendition, a political thriller with aspirations of being so much more that it is. The film treads into the minefield of debate that exists surrounding the question of Constitutional Rights versus National Security. Some day, someone is going to make a very good movie about these issues - one that will take a hard look at the dangers inherent in not walking the fine tightrope that exists. Rendition, however, approaches the subject playing with a stacked anti-National Security deck and a script that is half-baked. Hood has staked out a position and defended it in a shockingly unsubtle way. Instead of experiencing a movie that’s seriously interested in getting into all of the pluses and minuses of the policy of "extreme rendition," we are ambushed by a simplistic storyline that’s more interested in sermonizing and demonizing than existing in the real world where things aren't as clear-cut as the movie would like us to believe. The film's disappointingly black-and-white approach robs characters and situations of badly needed ambiguity.

"Extreme rendition" refers to the American policy of shipping detainees to prisons not on U.S. soil so they are not subject to due process and can be tortured as a means of eliciting information. To say that this policy is controversial is to understate the matter. Proponents argue that valuable intelligence has been gained from these interrogations, and lives have been saved. Opponents make the equally valid argument that the tactics are inhumane and they are at times being used on innocent victims. For a country that prides itself on a judicial motto "innocent until proven guilty," this seems hypocritical. Hood and his screenwriter, Kelley Sane, obviously agree with those who believe rendition is a gross abuse of power.

The film introduces several threads of a storyline that will eventually be interwoven. In South Africa, Egyptian-American Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) is getting on a plane to return to Chicago, where his pregnant wife, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon), and young son await him. In a nameless North African country, CIA analyst Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is involved in investigations surrounding a terrorist bombing that killed his partner. In Washington, a senior CIA official (Meryl Streep) is provided with intelligence that El-Ibrahimi received a cell phone call from the terrorist claiming responsibility for the North African attack. She orders El-Ibrahimi subjected to rendition. He ends up in North Africa, where Freeman is commanded to observe his interrogation by local officials and report any information back to her. When Freeman voices concerns that El-Ibrahimi might be innocent, she informs him that his job description doesn't include making such determinations. Meanwhile, an increasingly distraught Isabella goes to Washington, where she recruits help from an old flame (Peter Sarsgaard) who is the top aid to a U.S. Senator (Alan Arkin).

For a while, Rendition looks like it might be willing to enter the quagmire that exists around this issue, but it backs off at the last minute, taking the easy way out. Some might argue that uncertainty remains about El-Ibrahimi’s innocence, but Hood goes out of his way to indicate a lack of culpability even if he doesn't provide clear evidence for exoneration. While Rendition cavalierly tosses out justifications for the title tactic ("because of this, there are 7000 people alive in London who would otherwise be dead"), it's clear that all of the film's passion lie on the other side of the fence. I have no problem with any movie taking a political stance. What I object to is Rendition's reduction of complex arguments into simplistic ones.

The acting varies from fine to superlative. Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon are a little flat. Both have done substantially better work in the past. Meryl Streep is okay in a role that's laughably one-dimensional. (Think Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld in drag.) On the other hand, Peter Sarsgaard is terrific as the Senator's aid and Alan Arkin steals every scene he's in. Igor Naor, who plays the North African interrogator, is also effective.

The script is weak, especially during the final act. Several things that happen in the closing 15 minutes stretch credulity past the breaking point. Something clever is done regarding the chronology of one subplot; it's too bad that aspect of the film isn't more compelling. For director Hood, whose previous feature was Tsotsi, this is a surprisingly large misstep. The film will likely receive some positive notices because critics will applaud its politics. While I personally have reservations about the policy of extreme rendition, they are not going to cause me to be lenient on this sloppy production.

Rendition (United States/South Africa, 2007)

Director: Gavin Hood
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Alan Arkin, Meryl Streep, J.K. Simmons, Omar Metwally
Screenplay: Kelley Sane
Cinematography: Dion Beebe
Music: Paul Hepker, Mark Kilian
U.S. Distributor: New Line Cinema
Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2007-10-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1