Pros: superb ensemble, Dion Beebe's cinematography, DVD extras
Cons: eventually some conventional thriller material, gratuitously confusing flashbacks
I didn't plan for my Memorial Day movie-watching to focus on torture and terror, but it has: first the black and tan and the IRA in Ireland, ca. 1920 in "The Wind that Shakes the Barley" (2006), then a suicide bombing and the "extraordinary rendition" of an Egyptian-American, Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), from Chicago's O'Hare Airport, where his pregnant wife (the very American Reese Witherspoon) and young son (Aramis Knight) are waiting for him to Morocco, a country that has taken and tortured those suspected of links to terrorist cells at the behest of the CIA.
Directed by South African actor-turned-director Gavin Hood, whose "Tsotsi" won the best foreign-language film Oscar over the suicide-bomber black comedy "Paradise Now," "Rendition" dramatizes that with sufficient torture, someone will say whatever makes the torture stop. That very harrowing demonstration is only part of a very complex set of stories of increasingly isolated individuals. Being kept naked in a drum and taken out for waterboarding and being quasi-electrocuted is the most extreme aloneness; but there is also a suicide bomber (Khalid, played by Moa Khouas) cutting himself off from the grandmother with whom he lives and Fatima (Zineb Oukach), the young classmate he is wooing; there is the CIA analyst, Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose boss, the station chief, dies in his lap from the bomb blast and increasingly mistrusts everyone; there is the wife seeking to find out what happened to her husband; there is her ex-beau (Peter Sarsgaard) working for a US senator (Alan Arkin)and seeking to find out what happened to the disappeared Arab-American engineer. Corinne Whitman, the CIA official (Meryl Streep with a Southern accent) who decided to seize and ship off Khalid has a servant, but also seems to be pretty much alone in the world as she attempts to forestall terrorist attacks. Abasi Fawal (Yigal Naor), the Moroccan official in charge of the interrogation of Anwar has a wife and two daughters and underlings, and is as emotionally shut down as Douglas Freeman is tending toward being as he watches
The narrative structure is as complex as that in "Traffic" (either version). Well, perhaps more complex, because one major one is all flashbacks, which I did not realize until that story line reached the explosion in a Marrakech square that we saw before, early in the movie. I think that the Moroccan story of a reluctant zealot (torn between attempting to find personal happiness and what he conceives as his civic duty, like the Cillian Murphy character in "Wind") and his girlfriend who is defying her father who has chosen a husband for her could have and should have been marked with dates or "__ days earlier" (the device used in the very complexly structured time sequence in "Damages").
It would take thousands of words and considerable "plot spoiling" to explain how all the stories fit together, so I won't try.
Instead, I will note that Dion Beebe shot both the D.C. and the Morocco stories beautifully by (though what is occurring is far from beautiful) and praise the ensemble cast's performances. Among these, Omar Metwally particularly stands out, as he is broken and has to wonder if he can ever return to normalcy. Jake Gyllenhaal has the rather stereotypical role of an American reluctant to get involved, though the genre requires some white character to step up. He and Reese Witherspoon, as the wife trying to get answers and stonewalled by the US government that has disappeared her husband underplay (wisely, I think). In supporting roles, Streep and Arkin and Peter Sarsgaard provide iconic weight. Yigal Naor is a formidable presence as a patriarch with a lot of power over many people, but who has lost his daughter's obedience. Like Witherspoon, Zineb Oukach mostly reacts and does not chew up scenery. Laila Mrabti is impressive as the wife/mother, particularly in her wordless final scene.
As Khalid Moa Khouas (Munich, Lila Says) provides seemingly insouciant charm bopping around on his moped, carrying off the rich prize of Fatima. He is a budding artist. He cannot forget that his brother was an Islamist militant who was tortured to death -- in the custody of Abasi Fawal. The secularist in love within him wars with his perceived duty to avenge his brother. There is social support for martyr bravado, but (as in "Paradise Now") he wants to live and love.
"Rendition" has some very scary scenes of Islamists intoxicating themselves chanting and shows some very cold-blooded organizers of terrorism (within the unnamed Arab country). I didn't think that "The Wind that Sweeps the Barley" was one-sided. "Rendition" vividly portrays what Whitman (in Langley, VA) and Abasi Fawal are attempting to extirpate. Neither side has much concern about what is antiseptically called "collateral damage," such as the lives of the El-Ibrahimi family (Anwar came to the US at the age of 14, was educated in the US, has been successful in the US and is tortured as an "enemy combatant" with what does not even qualify in my view as "flimsy evidence.")
Bonus features and the real world
"Anytime someone tells you that you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs, immediately demand to see the omelet." -- James Rocchi on Cinematical.com
In bonus features, including a very interesting commentary track, Gavin Hood says that he wants to raise questions and does not have the answers to how to deal with terrorism without turning into a state terrorizing whomever, whenever without judicial review of even minimal plausibility of charges. The film invites discussion of issues, and I am not one to turn down the invitation. (Bushie ostriches are hereby forewarned!)
The DVD includes a 26-minuted documentary, "Outlawed," detailing some cases of Arabs disappeared on suspicions, held without charges and tortured for years. That documentary also has footage of Condeleeza Rice and George W. Bush lying about what the US does.
Bush goes beyond asserting that the US does not torture (Meryl Streep's character repeats this line within the movie) to explaining that torture is contrary to American values. The Bush administration has gone beyond violating the US Constitution to claim executive power that King John had to disclaim in the Magna Charta. Bush recently vetoed a bill forbidding torture by the CIA -- a veto that was applauded by Senator John McCain, who was tortured in a country that is not a signatory of the Geneva Accords on the treatment of prisoners of war. (McCain opposes torture by military officers, but accepts it done by or for the CIA. I have to wonder if he felt better when he was being tortured by Vietnamese not in uniform...)
Bush and McCain blather about the intent of those who adopted the US Constitution. Apparently, since the CIA was not mentioned (not coming into existence until a century and a half later) and nothing was specifically denied it, anything goes in the Bush-McCain view. It does not take much historical scholarship (though perhaps more than either politician has the patience for) to be sure that the US "Founding Fathers" opposed executives seizing individuals and holding them indefinitely without charges. I hope that what the Bush administration has done with the approval of John McCain et al. is contrary to American values. I think that the US was founded by men who sought to limit executive impunity to declare enemies and not have to account to anyone about their treatment or the evidence that they are terrorists.
In seven years, the Bush administration has failed to indict anyone for the anthrax-laced mail to Democratic Party senators. In seven years, the Bush administration has failed to bring any of those held as "enemy combatants" in Guantanamo to trial for any crimes. In seven years, the Bush administration has failed to find Osama bin-Laden, Etc. The arbitrary detentions and torture -- for which no senior officials have been held accountable -- have had no demonstrable beneficial results, but have undercut any moral authority the United States has in criticizing human rights violations by the dictators of Burma, China, etc. And what has been done to humiliate and break Iraqis with no involvement with terrorism and others has fostered outrage not only within but beyond dar-al-Islam (the abode of Islam).
What Bush/Cheney/Rice/Rumsfeld approved (as Bush recently verified) is contrary to the laws and values of the United States. For combating terrorism, what they have wrought is "worse than a crime, a blunder" (borrowing the formula of the master of realpolitik, Talleyrand).
I find what goes on in indoctrination madrasses (vividly portrayed in "Rendition") plenty scary, but the cold-blooded jettisoning of the rule of law by those prescribing democracy to the Middle East and the world, the rationalizations for ignoring the Constitution and its protections including habeas corpus are scarier to me. I find John Yoo (author of the torture-rationalizing memo, now returned to the law school of the University of California, Berkeley) scarier even than Osama bin-Laden. Bin-Laden never swore to uphold and defend the US Constitution as Yoo -- and Bush and Cheney and Rice and Rumsfeld -- did!
The case in "Rendition" is fiction, but, unfortunately, the removal from the US for torture elsewhere shown in it closely reflects real cases. There are even instances of American officials balking at what their government is doing., though I don't know that there are any who had gone as far into thriller movie adventures in rescuing prisoners as Doug Freeman does in the movie. The stonewalling by officials and the erasure of records is all too commonplace.
I should mention that in addition to the documentary on renditions on the DVD, there is a trailer, and a quite fascinating half-hour "making of" featurette showing how D.C. monuments and the Moroccan plaza were filmed. Reese Witherspoon provides the most insightful comments among those provided by actors. Explanations by the first head of the CIA's rendition program (who says that interrogation was not an important part of the program prior to 9/11) are also on view. There are also deleted scenes (including a whole plotline involving Doug Freeman's distrust spreading from work to "home") with insightful explanations by Hood of why they were cut.
Riveting as the movie is and about a very important topic (what is being done in our name and that of the pseudo-god "Security"), I would only give it four stars, because I think that the nonsynchronicity of the love story could easily enough been made explicit. That is, what is going on is confusing enough without sorting out that a major story is all flashback. I also think that what Doug Freeman eventually does is too conventional Hollywood heroism. It is the DVD that deserves the 5-star rating.
And ending where I began, "Rendition" resembles "The Wind that Sweeps the Barley" also in standing back and observing, not pressing one point of view on private and collective "troubles."