In the early part of the last century a fellow by the name of Sadakichi Hartmann—a gent of some note as a critic, writer, raconteur and world-class moocher—was ejected from a piano recital of the works of Liszt when he objected to the pianist’s additions to the score by standing up and loudly inquiring, “Is this really necessary?” Of his removal from the concert, Hartmann glumly announced, “I am a man much needed, but little wanted.” This also seems to be the lot of the movie industry’s attempts at making high-minded statements on the war in Iraq—and the war on terror in general.
The moviegoing public’s apparent apathy concerning such movies runs rampant (to the degree that anything as inherently inert as apathy can be said to run). The latest victim is Gavin Hood’s Rendition, a not unworthy effort that couldn’t draw smaller crowds if it was advertised as a cholera epidemic.
The film centers on the whole concept of “extraordinary rendition”—the process by which the U.S. government can detain suspected terrorists, whisk them off to a prison outside the U.S., have them “questioned” by any means deemed necessary, and still claim that the U.S. doesn’t torture prisoners. It’s highly charged, timely material that ought to be of more than casual interest, but the film has been met with deliberate indifference.
Even a high-profile cast can’t help the movie. It may, in fact, be hurting it. Moviegoers appear to want a perky Reese Witherspoon, not a serious one. Let’s face it, her Oscar win for Walk the Line had much to do with her being the liveliest thing in an otherwise Hollywooden waxwork biopic. And truthfully, she’s better suited for such roles. She’s OK as Isabella El-Ibrahimi, the wife of “detained” Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally, Munich), in the film’s quieter moments. However, her notion of drama involves raising the pitch of her voice to a level that could easily summon every dog in a 10-mile radius, and it does the film no favors. Still, these moments aren’t sufficient to sink the movie.
However, there’s also the screenplay by Kelley Sane, which relies too much on the “it just happens that” principle: It wants us to believe that it just happens that Isabella has an ex-boyfriend, Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard), who just happens to work for powerful Senator Hawkins (Alan Arkin), who just happens to have close ties to Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep), the apparent evil queen of extraordinary rendition. And it could also be said that the subplot involving the romance of Fatima Fawal (Zineb Oukach)—another “just happens” aspect, since she is the daughter of Anwar’s “interrogator,” Abasi Fawal (Yigal Naor, Munich)—and bona fide terrorist Khalid (Mohammed Khouas, Munich) is too clever for its own good, especially in its time-fractured insertion into the narrative. Personally, I thought this aspect of the film worked more than it didn’t, even if it did hint too strongly of Rendition‘s desire to be the next Syriana (2005), which it definitely isn’t.
Yet, all these reservations to one side, Rendition is still a good film of some power. The basics of its plot are well developed, and it never forgets to be entertaining, nor does it insist on inflating its importance by outstaying its welcome. At the same time, it’s a movie that touches on greatness in its surprisingly subtle depiction of otherwise good people—notably Alan Smith, Senator Hawkins and C.I.A. analyst Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal)—who are either cowed into submission by political expediency, or who are unwilling to look facts in the face for fear of seeing the truth.
Freeman is perhaps the best example of this. A self-proclaimed pencil pusher who finds himself thrust into an active role in Anwar’s interrogation when his in-the-field partner (Freeman goes out of his way to note that the man was not his friend) is killed. It’s obvious that Freeman knew that the interrogations were in fact torture sessions, but as long as he remained in the background, he could pretend that he didn’t know. Even at that, he’s clearly anesthetized himself to it all with hashish and any other distraction he could find. It’s only when he experiences an interrogation firsthand that the self-protective bubble of denial bursts.
That, of course, is what Rendition attempts with the viewer: to puncture his or her complacent denial, to bring into focus something kept dimly in the background. And that may well be the real reason on a broader scale for the film’s failure to find an audience: It tells us that which we’d prefer not hear. In a way, Rendition proves its own case by not finding an audience for its message—and that is perhaps more disturbing than its scenes of torture. Rated R for torture, violence and language.