FILM REVIEW: Rendition 

Simple Story, Hard Truths: Telling the truth about torture doesn't have to be tortuous

OK, maybe it's a tad too Hollywoodized. Maybe the ending is a tad too upbeat to be believable in a story based so closely on horrific reality. But maybe that's okay for the moment. Maybe it will take blonde pregnant Reese Witherspoon sobbing over her missing husband and handsome, conflicted Jake Gyllenhaal getting his conscience pricked to wake people the hell up.

Because this is actually happening, right now: people are being arrested on circumstantial evidence or none at all, denied access to lawyers, shipped to overseas secret prisons, detained indefinitely without charge, tortured. This is happening on American soil, perpetrated by American law enforcement. It embarrasses me to have to repeat it for the small percentage of the American public that is informed enough to be aware of it, but it embarrasses me even more to know that for way too many Americans, their first exposure to this howling injustice will be Rendition.

But if that's what it takes, I say we go for it.

Isabella Fields El-Ibrahimi (Witherspoon) can't find her husband, Anwar (Omar Metwally), an immigrant from Egypt who has lived, legally, in the U.S. since he was a teenager. He seems to have disappeared without a trace while en route from South Africa, where he was attending a professional conference, to their home in Chicago. She's distraught, of course, in a pretty, made-for-Lifetime female-empowerment-drama kind of way, but fortunately, she has a contact in the office of a U.S. senator, her old college friend Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard), so she pretty rapidly learns what has probably happened to her husband.

We've been witnessing it, of course: his snatching by federal agents as he changes planes in Washington, an "arrest" that can only be called a kidnapping, his fear at being accused of something he has not done (made bombs for terrorists), and the growing horror as he realizes he's caught up in the indiscriminate maw of the War on Terror. Instead, he is flown off to North Africa, stripped naked, and thrown into a coffin-like cell when he isn't being tortured.

The word "torture" gets tossed around in lots of metaphoric ways, but there's nothing metaphoric about the sensory deprivation, simulated drowning, and electrocution he endures. These scenes are pretty graphic for a Hollywood film, and they will leave you squirming. But every American should be forced to watch this movie, if only for these scenes, in order to see what is being done in our name, and in the name of, supposedly, freedom and justice.

It's actually all a bit too easy to get outraged by all this. Who wants to see a handsome man, a complete innocent, a loving father and husband like Anwar get abused? The much harder story, and perhaps one even more vitally necessary, is the one that explains why the guilty deserve their civil rights, but I suppose Rendition would have been an even tougher sell if Anwar looked like Osama Bin Laden, and we witnessed him barbecuing and eating white babies and fluffy kittens.

Rendition is a baby step toward waking people up. I can live with that. I can live, too, with the too-easy story of CIA analyst Douglas Freeman (Gyllenhaal), who observes Anwar's interrogation in the North African secret prison headed up by Abasi Fawal (Yigal Naor) and may be eventually coming around to decide this is bullshit.

I like much more how the film doesn't fetishize the suicide bombing that sets the plot in motion, doesn't ignore the truth (extraordinary rendition "started under Clinton," one character says), and doesn't overplay the villainy of even the villains, like Meryl Streep's CIA honcho — with her clean white house and sleek white suits, she is evil at its most banal. I like how the subplot of Fawal's teenage daughter (Zineb Oukach) and her unapproved-of boyfriend (Moa Khouas) works in a sneaky, satisfying way to highlight the endless cycles of injustice and retribution that fuel so much of the violence we live with (much as The Kingdom does).

And I like that the most important issues raised are unstated: Do American ideals stop at our borders? Are the politics of compromise valid, and surely there are things about which there can be no compromise? If the War on Terror is, clearly, not about preserving and defending American freedom — and in fact it is about just the opposite — what is it for, anyway? Isn't every right our government strips from us in the name of fighting terrorists just another victory for the terrorists?

If it takes a simplistic Hollywood movie to finally get the mainstream American public asking these questions for themselves, I'm all for it.


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