Honey, this is a nasty business.
—Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep)
Rendition is worried about torture. Specifically, it’s worried about Americans torturing other people while saying they’re not. Considering the terrible lies and worse motives that make national governments go, the movie is earnest and moralistic. But it’s not very brave. Depending on tedious soap operatic structures to make its case, it shows torture of an Arab by an Arab, while keeping its emotional focus on bland do-gooding white folks.
Rendition opens with a suicide bombing. The event occurs in an unidentified North African city and kills anonymous civilians and a blustery CIA agent, but the point is to foreground the significantly named CIA caseworker, Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), new on the scene and devastated by the sight of the bloody dead agent in his lap. At least for a minute. Instructed to take over the dead guy’s work, Douglas quickly pulls himself together, charges into the local CIA office still wearing his bloody shirt, and impresses the staff by directing the investigation into the attack (when he tells a stunned secretary, “I need a shirt,” it seems almost an afterthought, testament to his worthy toughness).
A suspect emerges, an Egyptian-born, green-card-bearing engineer named Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally). (The story resembles that of Canadian wireless technology consultant Maher Arar, renditioned in 2002.) Picked up by the CIA while he’s en route from a job in Capetown to his home in Chicago, Anwar appears to be exactly what he says he is, a hardworking nice guy. This impression is bolstered by your knowledge (undisclosed to Douglas) that he has a hugely pregnant, soccer-playing, blond wife in the States, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon). Anwar’s “extreme rendition” is a scary business: his name is deleted from his flight manifests, he is immediately bound and dragged around as if he’s a dangerous terrorist. No presumption of innocence, no diplomacy, only threats and abuses designed to frighten him into confessing his crimes.
The film, directed by Gavin Hood, makes sure you know that the practice of extreme rendition began during the Clinton administration, though “after 9/11,” a key character intones, “it took on a whole new life.” This “life” is what’s at issue here, the systemic lies and self-delusions that ground the work of neoconnish monsters like Douglas’ superior, Corrinne (Meryl Streep, reprising her role as a Very Bad Mom from Manchurian Candidate). Assigned to oversee the “questioning” of Anwar, Douglas hooks up with an Egyptian expert in such business, Abasi Fawel (Igal Naor), with whom he shares a mutually distrustful relationship from jump. Informed that torture (whose name is generally not spoken) is the speediest, most effective means of garnering “actionable intelligence,” Douglas goes along but worries, as he is, after all, the film’s most visible embodiment of moral concern.
During a phone call to Corrinne back in D.C., Douglas at first worries out loud. When she asks how it’s “going,” he says he’s not sure how it should be going. “This is my first torture,” he states, at which point she reminds him that the U.S. does not torture.
While you see what this not-torture looks like (primarily, Anwar’s naked body, tied to a chair, bloodied and broken, subjected to electric charges, as well as knives, beatings, kickings, and chokings), what Corrinne says is almost sort of true. Technically, the acts are performed not by a U.S. citizen—say, Douglas—but Abasi (and in that unnamed North African city, too boot). Still, Douglas’ angst ensures you feel upset too, and not believe Corrinne. Douglas drinks hard and even indulges in local sleepy-time drugs, suggesting that immersion in a “foreign” environment where torture occurs makes you not only depressed and lonely and angry, but also “like them.” This silly, heart-of-darkness sort of imagery is certainly irritating, but it’s also a very cheap way to displace the monstrosity. Corrinne is the wicked white lady, but she’s got at her beck and call all the dark-skinned native boys. Even if she believes in her cause, the film insists that you do not.
To make that point, it cuts awkwardly back and forth between Douglas’ distress (and oh yes, Anwar’s) and that of Isabella. She makes her way to D.C., where she knows an ex-boyfriend, Alan (Peter Sarsgaard), is now an aide to Senator Hawkins (Alan Arkin). Though Alan briefly wonders out loud about Anwar (a friend of his from college), Isabella’s outrage and faith (not to mention her exceedingly maternal body) inspire him to dig into the case. While Hawkins warns him to back off, to consider his own career options, Alan does go so far as to confront the imperious Corrinne, who has been avoiding his phone calls for days. (It is, of course, wildly symbolic that their encounter takes place at a fundraiser for Orphans of the Rwandan Genocide: U.S. officials do their photo ops but not their humane duty.)
While Alan and Isabella act out their sense of desperation in urgent close-ups (or, when Isabella’s water breaks, against a long-shot backdrop that includes the Capitol), and while U.S. officials insist on getting their aims, motives, and methods dead wrong, Rendition does offer another, less silly though equally melodramatic narrative. This plot concerns Abasi’s family, and in particular, his efforts (despite obvious distractions) to control the behavior of his rebellious, independent-minded daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach). She’s in love with Khalid El-Emin (Moa Khouas).
Fatima, like Isabella, believes in her man. Khalid, unlike Anwar, reveals to you early on that he’s not what he seems. Rather, he’s what you might expect in a U.S. movie about terrorism. Consumed with grief and rage over a dead brother, Khalid seeks vengeance (he appears amid masses of men in prayer and at demonstrations—the usual “scary” signs in U.S. movies). But if Khalid’s story is surely complicated and sad, the film can’t pursue it directly, instead filtering it through Fatima’s more palatable, soapier sensibility. If this romance-going-wrong is not a wholly satisfactory counterpoint to Douglas’ trajectory or Isabella’s, it is at least an effort to show something other than the usual actionated heroics.
While Rendition does show terrible torture, it doesn’t quite rethink the cultural context, the conditions that produce such monsters, again and again. When Asabi queries his victim, “Why do you do this to yourself?” he’s suggesting that if only Anwar will confess his crimes, he will no longer be abused. This standard interrogator’s question—seeming to grant even a semblance of power to the subjugated—is exactly what’s left unexamined here.