The Theory of Chaos

Saturday, December 15, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - Rendition

Full review behind the jump


: Gavin Hood
: Kelley Sane
: Steve Golin, David Kanter, Keith Redmon, Michael Sugar, Marcus Viscidi
: Jake Gyllenhaal, Reese Witherspoon, Omar Metwally, Yigal Naor, Peter Sarsgaard, Meryl Streep, Zineb Oukach, Moa Khouas, Alan Arkin, J.K. Simmons

The Presidential Oath of Office makes no mention of America’s lands or peoples, instead the President swears to defend our Constitution. The law and the ideas behind it are thus the true meaning and identity of America. The President is also Commander-in-Chief of our Armed Forces, and so it is his desk where the buck stops when it comes to using military and intelligence tools to defend America from her enemies. So if the government abandons our laws and ideals in the name of protecting lives (or that ominous phrase, “our national interests”), is that in line with this Oath? Are we still Americans then? Does it affect the answer to these questions if the tactics actually work or not? Do they work?

is about one such tactic – a tactic that is real and has been used on people, but no one can say how many, or if it has provided us any useful information at all. In rendition (a program, this movie reminds us, that was initiated by former President Clinton but considerably “expanded” after 9/11), people suspected of having information about terrorist operations are secretly captured, without charges or access to council, then “rendered” to foreign countries where they’re not as forbidden to do the sorts of things you’re forbidden to do to prisoners in America. We then get information, or a confession, back, without scrutinizing how it was acquired, and with no real way to verify its accuracy. And we are to trust that no one in the government will ever consider using such power haphazardly, or for their own interests or protection.

You can read
here about the case of Maher Arar, an innocent Canadian citizen who was grabbed in an American airport during a layover and spent a year sleeping with rats and being beaten by cables in a Syrian prison because he was seen having lunch at a strip mall with a guy who once worked with a guy who somebody thought might possibly have provided some service to Osama Bin Laden at some point. During torture, Arar confessed to being an Al Qaeda operative, which wasn’t true, but he hoped it would stop the pain. And once he confessed, I’m certain, his captors were convinced that their actions were now fully-justified. They had achieved “results”, and in this climate of fear, we want people to get “results”.

Watching this movie, which capably dramatizes on both the intimate and geopolitical scale the consequences of this program, I realized something insidious – how impossible it is to, beyond all possible doubt, prove someone is innocent. Is someone who pleads he is not a terrorist really innocent, or simply an excellent actor mocking your attempts to break him? In fear the taint of suspicion never fades, but only spreads. That the movie wants to examine this is a sign of bravery, though not necessarily a testament to its greatness as cinema. So now that we’ve spent an unusual amount of time establishing the playing field, let’s get to the movie.

It’s strange – in part, I have to blame the real world for one of Rendition’s chief flaws as drama. Because once her husband Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) is snatched from the airport on his way home from a business conference in South Africa, his pregnant American wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) is utterly, totally, helpless to alter the circumstances. Although she has an old friend (Peter Sarsgaard) who is now the chief staffer to a powerful Senator (Alan Arkin), which is more than most of us have, they’re paralyzed by the thought of sticking their neck out too far for a suspected terrorist.

After all, he once worked on a government project involving chemical explosives, which means he has the knowledge to make weapons. And his cell phone was once dialed by another cell phone which may at one point have belonged to a terrorist (they pass their phones around a lot). And his name is Anwar El-Ibrahimi, after all, and if you’ve got to pick a name off a list these days that looks like trouble…

CIA official Christine Whitman (Meryl Streep) insists with absolute confidence that rendition has saved the lives of thousands of people, and that this man has been taken prisoner for just reason. She’s playing a poker game where everyone else has to show their cards except her. It’s easy to project confidence in a game like that. It’s hard to want to stop playing a game like that, where you can make a Senator quail with one sentence.

Rendition constructs a clever parable about punishment and reward. People like Whitman who invoke the specter of 9/11 and armies of evildoers get rewarded with power, government contracts, electoral victories. People like Anwar El-Ibrahimi, whose refusal to confess threatens everyone’s sense that they’re doing the right thing, gets punished, and punished some more, and gradually learns that he will get rewarded if he provides what his interrogators want.

You can see Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) calculating this in some quiet rational corner of his brain. There isn’t much quiet anywhere else around him. A young CIA analyst in a fictional North African country, he’s been promoted far beyond his experience in the wake of a disastrous suicide bombing. He watches the arrival of El-Ibrahimi, observes his interrogation, hears the absolute confidence of intelligence chief Fawal (Yigal Naor) that what they are doing is the only way to deal with a savage enemy. Fawal is not evil in the sense that would make us condemn him more easily. We frequently see him with his family, which makes him beam with adoration.

He is simply a man of intensely-inflated pride with too much power, and we do not understand for a long time how these scenes of his rebellious daughter (Zineb Oukach), and her love for a boy he does not approve of, connects to everything else. But they will, in one of the more audacious triumphs of storytelling sleight-of-hand that I’ve seen in a mainstream Hollywood picture. It is rare for such a moving and well-crafted tragedy to come together invisibly before our eyes, then snap into total focus in a single instant.

That story works. So does Freeman’s learning curve, the way he forges a relationship with El-Ibrahimi (for awhile he despises the prisoner for refusing to play his assigned role as a terrorist). This has the dynamic tension and spiritual claustrophobia of great black box theatre. Gyllenhaal is an actor who has grown up before our eyes, and he is riveting in this as a man drowning in his responsibility, his lack of information crossed with this mania, this need to do something, to get “results”. He pleads with one government official to show him proof that rendition has accomplished measurable good in their struggle. “Give me a pie chart. I love pie charts.” Feeling himself on the verge of apostasy, he’s begging for a sign from above.

By contrast, with Reese Witherspoon’s character we’re just watching suffering, mounting with every frustrated inquiry, every bureaucrat who refuses to accept their culpability in her torment. Witherspoon is certainly talented, and plays true to what Kelley Sane’s script asks of her, but this is one of those peculiar cases where an actor’s stardom can distort the picture around her. Her story thread is crucial, and should weave into the overall tapestry of Rendition; instead it tries to be the tapestry, and the movie falls short of its potential.

The true acting plaudits should go to Omar Metwally, who as El-Ibrahimi is the face of what is being done in our name. It is not easy to unravel so gradually, to hold on so long to the belief that this is a misunderstanding and can be straightened out. But you believe someone might need this denial under the circumstances. He has been an American since college, he is financially secure, he lives in the suburbs, and you watch as, bit by bit, he realizes that none of these things matter, because his name is Anwar El-Ibrahimi and someone suspicious may have dialed his cell phone and he can’t explain why. And think about what you’re watching him do: it is both what an innocent man would do, and a guilty man doing an excellent job of pretending to be an innocent man would do. Which do you think the people beating him want it to be?


  • When Senator Bond justifies torture by saying, "We don't want to tie the hands of our terrorist fighters", I shudder to think what we have become. But then again, one would assume none of these assholes ever saw "Munich". And now more have been freed from Guantamano, our gulag with better food. Hooray for our side.

    By Anonymous Mike De Luca, at 8:27 AM  

  • I saw Munich with a close friend who is both conservative and a voracious political reader, he claimed that the book it was based on, and by extension, the movie, was utterly discredited, a) because Tony Kushner said something about Israel once, and b) because people who participated in the assassination missions have claimed in one forum or another that they didn't feel any of the self-doubt or moral questioning of the characters. I tried to tell him he was missing the point of the movie.

    And yes, those prisoners in Gitmo were apparently so uniquely dangerous, such a grave threat to our survival, that they couldn't be charged with a crime, allowed access to counsel, or any of our other Constitutional niceties. They had to be held in confinement, tortured for years, and then...released en masse without any charges? The hell?

    But I guess that they had rice pilaf one night really balances it all, doesn't it?

    By Blogger Nick, at 9:01 AM  

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