Thursday, June 12, 2008

Review of Hollywood Film, "Rendition," by New Line Cinemas
Starring Reese Witherspoon, Meryl Streep, and Jake Gyllenhaal
Set in Morocco, North Africa

Although watching torture scenes of a husband and father at a far-away prison in North Africa isn't usually at the top of my list for things I'd most like to do on a Friday night...I have felt immensely curious about this new form of state-sponsored terrorism. A couple of years ago in an Amnesty International Magazine, I read about one German man's experience of "extraordinary rendition" at the hands of the CIA (kidnapped, tortured, and humiliated before being dropped off in the middle of nowhere on a country road in's that for a European vacation?).

Post 9-11, it's truly incredible to see a Hollywood film bringing such a heavy and clandestine operation to the big screen and it's evident that award-winning director, Gavin Hood (Tsotsi), has done his research on the subject. Often, films can oversimplify the mess that is war and propaganda but "Rendition" gloriously succeeds in humanizing all of its key characters--from the overbearing Muslim prison warden who oversees the "interrogations" to the senator's aid who is pulled between saving his career and aiding his ex-girlfriend's struggle to track down her husband--and their struggles to fight for their loved ones.

Basically, the film centers on an Egyptian-born American engineer (Greencard) husband/father who doesn't make it back home from a business trip in South Africa. His wife (Witherspoon), pregnant and distraught, soon discovers that the government--which claims he never boarded the flight--is lying to her. Meanwhile, a city in Morocco (shot in Fez and Marrakesh) is being torn apart by recent "terrorist" attacks by fundamentalist Muslim groups and a young, green post-traumatic stress CIA agent (Gyllenhaal) is placed in charge of "overseeing" the Egyptian-American's secret torture. Throw in a ruthless Muslim prison warden, a cruel and ambitious CIA-linked politician, and a young Muslim girl falling in love against the wishes of her oppressive father...and you've got ample fuel for tension.

From the very beginning, Rendition is gorgeously shot and pays special attention to develop its characters' needs and desires. The dialogue is impeccably-written and authentic and the casting is spot-on. One of the greatest treats was to see both Muslims and Americans human and flawed in their own individual ways.

In its final scenes, Rendition is haunting and compelling in showing how through the process of "hunting" down terrorists--often innocent people with families-- we are creating victims. Often, the chosen "jackals" or interrogators will torture until prisoners are compelled to "confess" to relieve themselves of unerring pain and torture. One man advises a growingly dubious special agent (Jake Gyllenhaal),
"We have a saying in Morocco, if you beat your woman every day and you don't know why, then she will." Gyllenhaal's reaction is priceless.

The film also pokes fun at the U.S. government's repeated denials of institutionalizing torture. Gyllenhaal--high on opium and deeply troubled by the week's events--confesses in a phone conversation to his supervisor (Streep), "This is my first torture."
"The United States," hisses Streep, "DOES NOT torture." Although it's cliche, one can't help but be amused by her venomous denial.

If you do rent this movie, make sure to take an extra bit of time to view "Outlawed," a documentary on victims of rendition that is included in the special features section. If you had any doubt that rendition is taking place, this will be the final nail in the coffin. It will be well worth your while to listen to a few stories of men who have been "kidnapped," transported from prison to prison, tortured, and held for months and years without any legal representation or access to a court or contact with their families.

Wake up. This stuff is truly scary.
Check out the American Civil Liberties Union article on Rendition.