' Cinema Romantico: Rendition

Monday, October 29, 2007

Rendition

The term rendition, as we know, is used in cases when the U.S. suspects someone of terrorism and, without even leveling actual charges of terrorism against he or she, sends this person to another country and tortures them in an effort to extract whatever information our government believes he or she may possess. This came into effect (as the movie states) during the Clinton administration but supposedly it has been commonplace with our current President. If you want further information regarding rendtion I would advise you to read this.

I direct you to this article for two reasons. 1.) Anyone who feels the storyline on which "Rendition" hinges wouldn't actually happen can find proof that it can and, in fact, has taken place. 2.) A film like "Rendition" is ripe for reviews loaded with political commentary and a movie review is no place for such a thing. Politics are involoved in "Rendition", yes, and you know what? I don't care. The quote I've used on this blog again and again and again comes via the esteemed Roger Ebert and I'm going to use it again and I wish to God above that every critic in the world would heed: "It's not what a movie's about but how it's about it."

That's it. That's the game, boys and girls. The topic of the movie is "Rendition" as indicated by the title but it all boils down to HOW the film "Rendition" is about its topic. It's about how the characters act, what they do, and the decisions they make. If the characters and their decisions ring false then - and ONLY then - do I have a problem. I bring no additional assumptions to any film.

The story is this: Anwar (Omar Metwally), a chemical engineer, is returning from a conference in South Africa to his home in Chicago. But at the airport he is stopped by the CIA and taken away. CIA official Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep) has been advised calls were made to Anwar's cellphone by known terrorist responsible for a recent bombing. She orders the "rendition" which is carried out by Abasi (Igor Naor) a man whose daughter Fatima is in love with a young man of whom Abasi and his family do not approve. CIA agent Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose partner was just killed in the terrorist bombing, is ordered to "observe" the torture of Anwar. And back in Washington D.C. Anwar's wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) naturally wonders what has happened to her husband when he doesn't arrive home. Getting no answers she turns to an old friend, Alan (Peter Saarsgaard), who is an aide to a Senator (Alan Arkin).

It's the anti-"Babel". There are many storylines and they find themselves converging but not because the writer and director need and/or want them to. It feels genuine, born from the characters and what they do. Streep as the CIA agent who orders the torture may, at first glance, seem one note. And she is, but I found that the point of the character. There does seem to be a certain single-mindnedness in the upper echelon of our current government. There's a fantastic scene she shares with Saarsgard's character where she reduces everything to the numbers game - you know, we do this to one person so we can save however-many lives. It provides a political message, yes, but I believed it because this is a conversation these two characters would have.

Saarsgaard as the senator's aide and Arkin as the senator himself are portrayed as good men but ones who must exist in a world with compromises. Do they agree with rendition? Perhaps not, but even so they know they must do what they must do.

Witherspoon as the determined soccer mom (and I mean that literally - you'll see if you watch it) doesn't have as much as to do but delivers a solid performance nonetheless. It could have just been a lot of screaming and crying but she internalizes it.

As the interrogator, Asabi may initially seem like the proverbial movie monster but by using a fascinating bit of structure that slowly reveals itself (of which I will say no more) the movie enlightens us to his real motives and sets up an inevitable situation that is downright gut-wrenching.

For me, though, the real soul of the film lies with Gyllenhaal. He gives a fantastic performance specifically because he comes at it from an unexpected angle. He's the new guy. And because he's the new guy we assume he enters his job like all new guys in movies do, right? He's eager to learn, thinks he can make a difference, blah blah blah, only to see how cruel the world really is and grow weary of what he's asked to do. But Gyllenhaal gives us a character with the weariness already intact. His moment of clarity isn't so much a moment of clarity as him saying, "That's it. I've had it. I can't take this crap anymore. You've literally pushed me to my limit. I'm done."

Astute readers may noticed a bit of anger in the paragraphs opening this review. It is my rule not to read reviews of movies I want to see prior to seeing them and I followed the rule for "Rendition" though I did read a few after my viewing and, well, they upset me. People seem convinced director Gavin Hood was delivering an overtly political message, telling us that rendition is baaaaaad.

Well, I didn't see it. I have no doubt Hood is not what one may term a proponent of rendition and perhaps he hopes the audience will infer that from his film but there is a never a moment in "Rendition" - not a single one - where it stops in its tracks to lecture us. And consider the conclusion. It easily could have been loaded with flags waving and trumpets blaring but no. Once the questions posed at the beginning have been answered, it ends. Not a second later. Or, to say it another way, when the characters' journies end, so does the film. Read other reviews if you want, that's fine. You know if you tend to agree with me or not. But I recommend this film to the utmost.

Thanks be to the cinematic splendors of autumn for I get to write these words on two posts in a row - "Rendition" is one of the best films of the year.

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