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Movie Review: Rendition

Directed by Gavin Hood
Written by Kelley Sane
New Line Cinema

Rendition is one of those movies that I watch and later, I have to do something I rarely do: read other reviews before I send everyone my own assessment.  Because I had been hearing lukewarm things about it, and I wondered why, considering that I watched this movie from 2 AM until after 4 AM and was riveted, never wanting it to mercifully end.

But that’s the game that political movies play, and it’s the right of some critics to think they know everything about our post-9/11 world that if a movie makes any kind of misstep, it’s time to savage the picture.  Much like last month’s The Kingdom, Rendition is getting an unfair shake.  It’s time to stop looking to movies like this for sage political insight as if they were documentaries.  I’ve read a couple of times that the politics in the movie are “oversimplified,” as if Syriana’s complex, at times muddled, plot should always be followed.  Even Syriana didn’t get fair treatment from critics, although I also don’t think it should have been nominated for Best Picture, either.

So you really can’t win.  But look at Rendition as a thriller, without what we claim to know about what goes on in the world, and your mind eases up a bit.  The film’s title refers to a practice of the government, in extreme circumstances, to detain someone they suspect is involved with terrorism (or whatever reason) and question them without a lawyer.  This scary institution, leading to torture, brings up the obvious question.  How many innocent people go through this daily, how many ”guilty” people are actually getting caught by this process, and are the sins committed worth all the aggravation?

A bomb goes off in a marketplace in North Africa, set to kill top politician Abasi Fawal (Yigal Naor).  Near the blast is CIA man Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose superior is killed in the blast, placing the young Freeman in his post.  This post is as a CIA interrogator, and soon he’s thrust into the un-wonderful world of torture as the U.S. government locates chemical engineer Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), whom they suspect to have given the terrorist group the knowledge to make bombs.  They swipe him from an airport, delete his records, and after questioning from Lee Mayer (J.K. Simmons), it looks like he should be on his way home: he doesn’t know anything, it must be a mistake.

But that’s why big money goes to top government official Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep), the Donald Rumsfeld of the movie.  She claims that thousands of lives have been saved through the rendition program, believes that El-Ibrahimi is just a well-trained liar who will eventually give up information, sends him out to North Africa to be questioned by Abasi himself.  Freeman can attend to interrogation, but is permitted only to watch.  Abasi beats and electrocutes El-Ibrahimi, and Freeman begins to wonder if something should be done, because he doesn’t think the man knows anything.

Meanwhile, at home, El-Ibrahimi’s wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) tries to find out what happened to her husband.  His disappearance leads her to seek out old college friend Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard), an assistant to Senator Hawkins (Alan Arkin), hoping he can use his connections to figure everything out.  Of course, the political system is hard to crack, Whitman just denies she even knows who El-Ibrahimi is, and when further digging is attempted, everybody has to be absolutely sure that El-Ibrahimi isn’t hiding anything, that he’s absolutely the right guy to fight for.

And finally, Abasi’s own daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach) has run off to be with an unapproved boyfriend, Khalid El-Amin (Mohammed Khouas), who is in an extremist group.  It looks like they’re about to plan another attack.

It’s an engrossing film, with good performances across the board.  I really liked Gyllenhaal in this, playing the conflicted CIA man, and Metwally as the tortured El-Ibrahimi is excellent. The movie has an interesting play with time that is completely unexpected, and makes the film richer.  I’m soured that this movie isn’t getting the critical reception it deserves, but that’s what happens when people think they know everything.

I haven’t seen Gavin Hood’s breakthrough film, Tsotsi, but I’m going to have to find it.  This guy is a talent.   

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