Rendition (2007)

rendition

Rendition
Dir. Gavin Hood
Premiered at Toronto September 7, 2007

Rendition is a better Oscar Bait film than In the Valley of Elah. It’s better-written, better-directed, and has way more star power. Unlike Elah, it has a much better grasp of its subject matter, and takes a definitive stance beyond “something is wrong.” Consequently, it feels much more in touch.

Most importantly, and in stark contrast to most other “political” films of 2007, Rendition realizes that if a movie is going to shape hearts and minds, it must be watchable. Somehow, it succeeds at both, yet it does so in such a way that they cancel each other out.

Upon arriving at Washington Dulles Airport from a business conference in South Africa, Egyptian-American chemical engineer Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) is kidnapped by CIA operatives, erased from the passenger manifest, and flown to Tunisia to be interrogated. His chief interrogator, Abasi Fawal (Yigal Naor), was the intended target of a suicide bombing the previous day. The bomb used was much more chemically complex than in previous attacks, and prime suspect, one Khalid El-Emin (Moa Khouas) was discovered to have made several phone calls to a man named Anwar El-Ibrahimi.

Anwar maintains his innocence, even as he is subjected to imprisonment, waterboarding, and electrocution, which drives Fawal’s American handler, CIA analyst Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) whose predecessor was killed in the same bombing, to question his role in the practice of Extraordinary Rendition, a real US government policy by which suspected terrorists were abducted and taken to prisons outside American jurisdiction for maximum plausible deniability. Neither Freeman nor his supervisor (J.K. Simmons) are sure that Anwar is their man, but their indefatigable boss (Meryl Streep) is certain beyond any shadow of a doubt, and will stop at nothing to make sure she isn’t questioned

Although Anwar’s name no longer appears on the flight manifest, his credit card bill confirms that he was on the plane. Upon this discovery, his wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon), heavily pregnant with their second child, travels to Washington and attempts to call in a favor with an old friend (Peter Sarsgaard) and the Senator he serves (Alan Arkin).

In a tangentially related plot, Fawal’s daughter Fatima (the head-explodingly gorgeous Zineb Oukach) is hiding from her conservative father, shacking up with a secret boyfriend who is becoming radicalized.

On the one hand, the inclusion of this last plot is good for the film as a viewing experience. It’s nice to look at, and gives the film a good rhythm and much-needed breathing space from the main conflict. While Witherspoon and Arkin give pained monologues for their Oscar Reels, Streep glowers like a cartoon villain, and Gyllenhaal’s dialogue occasionally devolves into flowery pontification (such as quoting Shakespeare in a fireside chat with his Tunisian counterpart), the Fatima plot is far more naturalistic without clashing with everything else.

On the other hand, while the outcome of the Fatima plot is set up, there’s no reason for it to be set up the way it is except (a) that interconnecting narratives were trendy among prestige films in the mid-late 2000s, and (b) to throw in a twist. Suffice it to say that, while the bulk of the  film suggests a rigid, 24-like adherence to chronological immediacy at the expense of all else, the two plot lines are not necessarily happening at the same time.

It isn’t hard to see why Rendition ended up flying under the radar: it’s the kind of movie you happily sit through, but which leaves you scratching your head a few hours later. Faced with the choice between being a Very Important Movie and a Good Movie, Rendition somehow managed to be both and neither.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Flip phones galore. Khalid wears a keffiyeh scarf, is not Palestinian. The US government officially does not consider Enhanced Interrogation Techniques to be torture.

Additional Notes

  • The film is not explicitly set in Tunisia, though some of the documents read by Freeman say “Tunis.” I suspect the filmmakers ultimately decided to avoid pissing off a friendly nation and go with an unnamed North African setting. Unfortunately, the film was shot in Morocco, home to a distinct culture far predating the presence of Islam or the Arabic language, and specifically Marrakech, which there’s no confusing for anywhere else.
  • Bizarrely, two scenes set in a congressional office in Washington, DC use a backdrop of Downtown Los Angeles. Shooting on a Hollywood soundstage is one thing, but it’s not as if DC backdrops are hard to find.

How Did It Do?
Rendition grossed just $27.5 million against a $27 million budget, received a tepid 47% rating on RottenTomatoes, and received no notable accolades whatsoever, not even for Academy goddess Meryl Streep (she would fare no better with the forthcoming Lions for Lambs– nor would anyone else). Roger Ebert was uncommonly glowing in his praise; Peter Travers meanwhile proclaimed it the worst anti-war movie of 2007, though I don’t think it holds a candle to such turds as Redacted, In the Valley of Elah, or Lions for Lambs.

Next Time: The Visitor

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