[18 October 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
RENDITION (dir. Gavin Hood)
Okay, okay, we get it. In the name of the War on Terror, the United States has screwed up—BIG time. We’ve made massive military and diplomatic blunders, turned ourselves from last remaining superpower to international laughing stock, and allowed our Red State leanings to manifest themselves in the biggest set of civil rights abuses since African Americans were forced to drink from segregated water fountains. So here’s a message to Hollywood—enough already. We GET IT. Uncle Sam has ruined his reputation, our own government is complicit in major infractions of the Geneva Convention, and none of this is making us safer. So you’ve got plenty of targets to take out. Terrific. Just know this—you sell your media-minded position a lot more successfully when you remember to make your harangues entertaining. Without that, there’s just empty, obnoxious jingoism.
Rendition is the result of such pompous over-pronouncements. It’s a well-intentioned screed undone by its desire to make all sides of its conflict saintly simplistic. It wastes prodigious talents both in front of and behind the camera in service of a tale that’s so obvious in its moral underpinnings and thankless in its idea of subtlety that it even finds nobility in a suicide bomber. Any film founded on secret US torture sights should have the backbone to place the blame squarely on the bureaucratic shoulders where it belongs. But in Gavin Hood’s showy storytelling designs and all sides supporting the center script, what we wind up with is black and white cast as all gray and not gray enough. Issues of security and wartime intelligence are indeed important. But Rendition is so existentially earnest that you’re not quite sure where your true feelings are supposed to lie.
While on his way home from a business trip, Egyptian born Anwar El-Ibrahimi is suddenly detained at the Washington DC airport. Seems a well known terrorist has contacted his cellphone number, and the CIA wants to know why. Of course, this leave his pregnant wife Isabella in a quandary, especially when he fails to show up as planned. Though the airlines argue he was never on the flight, our heroine discovers otherwise. She seeks the help of an old college friend, a Senator’s aide who has connections to tough Agency head Corrine Whitman. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, El-Ibrahimi is interrogated by the tough Abasi Fawal. Under the watchful eye of field agent Douglas Freeman, the seemingly innocent man is tortured for information. While his wife waits for word, he’s clinging desperately to life.
There is much more to Rendition than this—too much more. Fawal has a daughter who is defying his arranged marriage wishes, leading to all manner of domestic strife for the belligerent bulldog of a man. Freeman is having his own internal crisis, a life as CIA lackey leaving him empty and prone to personal doubt. Isabella is pregnant, and her past ties to the Congressional assistant seem to cement the investigation. Then there is the Arab’s anarchic child, pining away for a fellow student and finding herself locked in a surreal interpersonal holy war between rising fundamentalism, a group of terror minded leaders, and the man she thinks she loves. It’s enough to make your head spin, and Hood apparently wants it to corkscrew right off.
Instead of presenting events as they are meant to play out, we get a Pulp Fiction tweaking of the plot point time lines. It’s so jarring, so in your face obvious and arty that, when discovered, we find ourselves rewinding the movie in our mind to see if Hood stayed true to the tactic. Sadly, it also saps any inherent emotion out of the story. Somewhere along the line, Hollywood has gotten the idea that certain standard relationships don’t require character defining backstory. Star-crossed lovers—especially in a strict foreign country—are supposedly intriguing in and of themselves, while a mixed marriage in the United States (especially one so clearly contrary to our post-9/11 tolerances) earns intrigue by merely existing. But that’s not the case. Rendition relies too heavily on inference and supposition. As a result, we never identify with these individuals, or empathize when there life goes wildly out of whack.
And that’s a shame, especially since Hood sets up big scope moments of universal import as a means of making us feel. Reese Witherspoon, who’s more or less blank here, gets one of those screeching confrontations that pass for dramatics, while Jake Gyllenhaal’s CIA stooge has a taking a stand situation that’s supposed to turn him from rube to hero. But since we literally know nothing about these people, we never feel their pain. Even strapped naked to a water torture device, Omar Metwally’s El-Ibrihimi is nothing more than a pathetic prop. Granted, Hood stacks the deck during these scenes, turning the interrogation by Yigal Noar’s Fawal into Hostel with higher ambitions, but since we don’t have a stake in this game (and the passé explanation about the title act of illegal detention is not enough to provide one) we end up shrugging our shoulders when we should be shielding our eyes.
Indeed, Rendition’s biggest obstacle is the inordinate number of “who cares?” interactions. What are we really supposed to gain from the Arab boy-girl puppy loving? Is there anything other than kitchen sink drama attached on Papa Fawal’s strident parental approach? Is the presence of El-Ibrihimi’s patient and philosophical mother in Isabella’s life nothing more than a countermand to all the foreign zealotry, and should Meryl Streep play evil when she’s given nothing more than bureaucratic shorthand as speeches? Hood, who filled his Oscar winning foreign film Tsotsi with a real sense of time and place, feels flummoxed here. You can almost sense the pull between paradigms going on in this South African born, American influenced filmmaker. Part of him is looking for all the local color he can get. The rest is wrestling with the standard cinematic designs of the genre (thriller) he’s attempting.
It’s lose/lose all the way. There is a good story buried somewhere in Kelley Sane’s scattered screenplay, a tale to be told about a government so paranoid about losing power—and innocent people—that it would stoop to ridiculously reactionary measures to achieve minor Intel-objectives. Let’s not forget that El-Ibrihimi’s ordeal occurs because a random CIA agent is killed in a suicide bombing. Linking this man to the insignificant organization we see (these are radicals who plot their protests out in the open, after all) seems like much ado about saber rattling. None of the participants on either side of the situation seem to care about such a slash and burn approach. Apparently, they’d use a nuke to find a needle in a haystack as well.
Without superb acting to pull us through the rougher bits, without a clear emotional connection to the events unfolding—heck, without a concrete idea about what is happening when—Rendition renders itself moot. It becomes an argument where the winner has already been determined, a debate without a clear pro/con dichotomy. Neither side we see is defensible, nor is it determinative. It appears to merely be the best way for Hollywood to state its artistically slanted agenda. Right or wrong, a sledgehammer and additional salt for the wounds never won anyone over—not even the already converted. Rendition is the reactionary as reality. It paints a portrait that very few, if any, can salute.