About halfway through Gavin Hood’s new film Rendition, something occurs that vaguely resembles a laugh line. When the sociopathic CIA director (Meryl Streep) calls up the agent (Jake Gyllenhaal) assigned to observe his first secret interrogation in North Africa, she interrupts him smoking a hookah in a belly-dancing club. Perhaps feeling bolder than he would during working hours, he tells her that the rather aggressive methods aren’t working. “You’re new to this aren’t you?” she asks the young lad. “This is my first torture,” he deadpans. The audience tittered–one of those vaguely knowing chuckles tinged with nervousness and rounded out with the relief of hearing a thing called by its proper name.
Rendition is the story of Egyptian-born chemical engineer Anwar El-Ibrahami (Omar Metwally), who has lived in the United States on a green card for twenty years. Anwar is married to a very pregnant Isabella (Reese Witherspoon, who takes chin-trembling to heights not seen since Clare Danes in My So-Called Life), and the two already have one very adorable small boy. Suspicious calls related to a bombing where the CIA lost an agent have been traced to Anwar’s cellphone, leading to his arrest while returning home from a business trip to South Africa. Isabella, unable to get any answers and frantic with grief, lobbies her college sweetheart-turned-Senate aide (Peter Sarsgaard) for help finding the obviously innocent Anwar. Alan Arkin has a small role as a senator who does not feel overwhelmingly compelled to help.
Like The Kingdom, which was released in September, Rendition tells parallel stories of an American and an Arab family. Anwar’s interrogator, Abasi Fawal (Yigal Naor), is the father of the teenage Fatima (Zineb Oukach), who is entangled in a romance with a strong-jawed, handsome jihadi boy (and is herself no slouch in the trembling department). If it seems like another ensemble picture of interlocking lives brought together on one fateful day, well, it is. But there’s also a twist that changes the picture somewhat at the end. It’s a movie that holds you–even the shlocky music can’t detract from the power of its images and the drama of the story.
As in The Kingdom, it’s the Arab family in Rendition that ultimately endures tragedy. Both films flirt with turning into an altar for white catharsis, but given the rarity of images of Arabs in the American mainstream, they ought to be recommended for at least humanizing these characters. Of course, audiences are not so comfortable with “Arabs–they’re just like us!” thinking, which means that Isabella and Anwar’s relationship can never move into the bedroom. Their love is familial love–as opposed to that of Gyllenhaal, who seems to receive his North African girlfriend when he picks up his badge at headquarters.
A touch of colonial entitlement notwithstanding, Gyllenhaal is clearly the cipher that Hood, who won an Oscar for the South African drama Tsotsi, uses to send the movie’s moral message. He is the one whom white audiences identify with, standing a few feet away from the waterboarding, the hooding, the electrocutions, deciding what is wrong and what he can do. Being a moral compass isn’t such a bad thing. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner had Katharine Houghton, Dead Man Walking Susan Sarandon, Twelve Angry Men Henry Fonda and Brokeback Mountain had… Gyllenhaal. (Jake Gyllenhaal–this generation’s Sidney Poitier? The jury is deliberating!) While the movie sticks him with some cringe-worthy wooden lines in defense of law and order, he at least gets to quote The Merchant of Venice: “I fear you speak upon the rack, where men enforced do speak anything.”
The real star is Metwally. He howls, convulses and bleeds–eyes giant and terrified and desperate. His is the body the movie writes its message on, a message that is more visceral than political. The only President Hood mentions by name is Clinton (as in, “Rendition started under Clinton and expanded after 9/11″). The images of Metwally’s suffering are not gratuitously violent. You’ll find worse in any of the torture-shock horror movies that have flooded the theaters lately. But the potent images of his suffering overwhelm the “debate” that Rendition pretends to have, a tit-for-tat that is largely pro forma. Streep smirks and struts, but she’s too extreme a villain, with boilerplate dialogue taken straight from 24 about sacrificing one for the protection of all. And although Arkin argues that Anwar’s isn’t the “watertight” case he’s willing to stake his career on, the film makes clear that such a case could never exist since the government will always find a scrap of “evidence” to justify detention.
Brian DePalma’s Redacted (which opens on November 16) also tells a story designed to provoke outrage about US crimes in the “war on terror.” A fictionalized account of the US soldiers who raped a teenage girl in Samara, it is told from the perspective of a soldier’s video diary, a conveniently located surveillance camera, a French documentary, Internet video and so forth. DePalma has claimed the film is about “information” and “perspective,” but it’s no Rashomon. Each view makes the very same point. And if Rendition seems too much like Hollywood finger-wagging for your tastes, steer very far clear of Redacted. It is less a series of moving images than a hard, spiked bludgeon coming out from the screen and smacking you square on the head for a long ninety minutes.
Rendition never resolves the question of how the suspicious calls wound up traced to Anwar’s phone. It leaves hanging the image of one of Fawal’s other victims–a jihadi youth. Audiences will surely find it easy to want fairness for a fine upstanding family man like Anwar El-Ibrahimi. But how easily will the desire to fight for justice for terrorists come to them? Without justice for terrorists, the film almost has the courage to say, there will be justice for no one.