Mark Reviews Movies


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Gavin Hood

Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Omar Metwally, Peter Sarsgaard, J.K. Simmons, Zineb Oukach, Mohammed Khouas, Meryl Streep, Alan Arkin

MPAA Rating:  (for torture/violence and language)

Running Time: 2:00

Release Date: 10/19/07

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Review by Mark Dujsik

There are two potentially intriguing films on the United States' policy of "extraordinary rendition," the procedure of transferring suspected terrorists into other countries to be held without knowledge of the crimes of which they are suspected and other forms of due process (of course, this is all alleged), here. One follows the pregnant wife of a detainee trying to find out what happened to her husband, and the other follows the detainee's interrogator as he also attempts to find his missing daughter. Both could work quite well separately, but in Rendition, the stories are unflatteringly forced together, neither of them highlighting the thematic relevance of the other. The mishmash also limits the emotional connection either story might have had, and there's a jarring chronological reworking late in the movie that feels strained and unnecessarily convoluted in an otherwise straightforward narrative. The point of the twisted chronology is obvious but its actual impact is lost, and that's simply because, for all the movie's sincere, blatant political intentions, there is too much going on without enough time spent developing any of the threads beyond their merest political intentions.

Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) is in Cape Town, South Africa, leaving a business conference. His cell phone tells him he's missed a call. Meanwhile in Chicago, his pregnant wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) is playing soccer with their son. Anwar calls, telling her when to expect him at the airport. In North Africa, CIA analyst Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is preparing for work. He rides in an SUV with his associate Dixon (David Fabrizio) through the town square when a suicide bomber attacks, and Dixon is killed in the blast. Freeman's boss Mayer (J.K. Simmons) wants him to take over Dixon's position until a replacement is sent in. In Washington, D.C., Mayer's boss Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep) finds out about the killing of an American agent and gives authorization to take someone into custody. Before boarding his flight home, Anwar is black-bagged by government agents, his record of arriving is deleted. Mayer questions Anwar about suspicious calls to his phone from a known terrorist, and after getting nowhere, Whitman has Anwar sent on a plane to North Africa, where local government official Abasi Fawal (Yigal Naor) instructs Freeman only to observe his interrogation. After her husband doesn't get off the plane in Chicago, Isabella begins investigating her husband's disappearance.

That in itself is the setup for one movie, but Kelley Sane's screenplay goes further. Abasi's daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach) is in love with a young man named Khalid (Mohammed Khouas), even though she is already arranged to be married. The two young lovers run away together to live in Khalid's grandmother's house. As it turns out, Khalid has much closer ties to the group Abasi and the CIA are looking into than Anwar could ever even imagine having, and Abasi is more concerned with Anwar than his home life. The irony, obviously, is that Abasi has the means to find both his daughter and the perpetrator of the attack but is too busy dealing with the United States' affairs than his own. The shifty timeline exists in this second storyline and only raises questions about Abasi's common sense (We learn, without giving away too much, he could have questioned someone about the bombing before Anwar even arrived in North Africa). The second setup is admittedly intriguing for the irony, but its competition with the other running storyline keeps us distanced from the emotional impact it's meant to have. The twist in chronology, likewise, just becomes an irritation.

Meanwhile in the States, Isabella contacts an old college friend Alan (Peter Sarsgaard), who now works for a US Senator (Alan Arkin). Alan does his own investigation into Anwar's disappearance and doesn't give much hope to his old friend. He confronts Whitman at a fundraiser, which leads to a simplistic exchange pitting personal freedom ("I should send a copy of the Constitution over to your office.") against national security ("I should send a copy of The 9/11 Commission Report to your office."). Of course, the Senator has a bill on the table and can't get involved, allowing him some advice to his worker: "If you want to be one of those people who never compromises, join Amnesty International." The scenes of Anwar's torture are disturbing, and Freeman's own disgust of them becomes the movie's moral dilemma. It's not much of one, though, since it's clear from the beginning that Anwar is an innocent victim of a major misunderstanding (Had he been guilty—even in some minor way—that would have really produced a quandary, probably less for Freeman but more for the audience.).

The movie's intentions are clear-cut, and its execution is solely to back them up. I have no problem with the aim of Rendition, but the process of getting there simply doesn't hold together well. It's never a good sign when you agree with a movie's politics and still don't like it.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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