It has been dubbed “The 24 Scenario,” after the popular television drama. A massive bomb, for instance, is set to go off within a large American city and someone in U.S. custody knows where it is and how to disarm it, but is refusing to talk. Do the rights of the many trump the rights of the one? What if, by torture — an act legally and morally reprehensible to the government and its citizenry — the information can be obtained and countless innocent lives saved? Is coercion justified in such circumstances? Wherever you fall, it is a compelling quandary.
Rendition spans two continents, contrasting the noise, clutter and seemingly unorganized chaos of the Middle East with the clean vertical and horizontal lines of Washington D.C.. Somewhere in North Africa, Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), a CIA analyst, finds his sense of morality upended when he is assigned to oversee the interrogation and torture of an Egyptian-American prisoner. The man, accused of aiding terrorists, is Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), a chemical engineer from Chicago who, on his way home from a business conference, is abducted by the CIA and outsourced to North Africa for unorthodox questioning. Head of the secret prison, Abasi Fawal (Igal Naor) carries out his duties with calculated resolve, despite the fact that his personal life is in shambles; amidst several attacks on his life, his rebellious daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach) has run off with her Islamic fundamentalist boyfriend, Khalid (Moa Khouas).
Back in America, Anwar’s convert wife, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) searches desperately for any clue that might point to why her husband never got off his homebound plane. Flying to the nation’s capitol, she enlists the help of an old, politically connected college friend, Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard) an aide to the powerful Senator Hawkins (Alan Arkin). But the more Alan probes on Isabella’s behalf, the more he suspects his own government is behind the disappearance, and the more pressure is brought to bear on him to desist, especially by Corrinne Whitman (Meryl Streep), the head of the CIA’s anti-terrorism department.
Rendition is directed by South Africa’s Gavin Hood, the director of 2005’s powerful Tsotsi, and the recipient of the first Academy Award for that country. There are an appalling number of foreign filmmakers who come to America to produce their first English-speaking film only to lose their artistic integrity amidst Hollywood’s relentless demand for bigger, faster, louder. (Downfall director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Invasion earlier this summer immediately comes to mind). Gavin Hood has broken the mold, steering clear of the treacherous rocks that have sunk so many of his predecessors and produced a film of blistering complexity and power.
The film takes its title from the U.S. government’s policy of “extraordinary rendition” — the abduction, indefinite detention and torture of foreign nationals deemed threats to national security. The film exists in a gray zone that acknowledges the existence and relevance of both sides — those who believe in the imperative to intermittently abandon civil liberties in order to save lives and those who believe that such actions lead our country down dark paths that damage our reputation, moral fiber and future security. The film asks the most utilitarian question: does torture work or will prisoners fabricate anything to abate the pain?
For a role deliberately devoid of charisma, the always-stellar Gyllenhaal turns in a powerful performance. There is a world-weariness, a barely functioning exhaustion that few actors can pull off well. Harrison Ford is known for it. Add Gyllenhaal to the list. His Douglas Freeman is a September 12th enlistee in the CIA, who has probably seen and done more than he could ever imagine. Now he is little more than walking dead, fatigued to the bone, more zombie than man. A young operative hopelessly out of his depth, he has mixed feelings about his assignment from the start, but believes in the rightness of his cause. Still, he cannot quiet his conscience, no matter how he tries to drown it in cheap alcohol or passion-filled nights.
Gyllenhaal is not the only standout in this pool of Oscar acquaintances. Reese Witherspoon’s all-American girl convert to Islam forces the viewer to think twice about the Muslim face of America. Omar Metwally, best known as the Palestinian lieutenant who shared a cigarette and political barbs in a stairwell with Eric Bana in Munich gives an emotionally charged performance as the suspected terrorist. Israeli actor Igal Naor is a perfect amalgam of precision and tenderness. And Meryl Streep does what all great thespian icons do, no matter the size of the role — shine.
Screenwriter Kelley Sane makes his motion-picture debut with Rendition. You’d never know he’s a novice. Weaving together a complex, multi-layered story that ends with a shocking twist, Sane isn’t afraid to leave some questions unanswered. He hints at pasts between some of the principles, but fascinatingly never teases them out. And he allows the film to end with a degree of menacing ambiguity, never answering one of Rendition’s core uncertainties. This is not a film that pretends to know all the answers, but finds the questions themselves an imperative.
Artists have always worked out national angst in whatever medium they employ. It is no surprise that such questions of national identity and moral authority are just now making their way to a theater near you. Given that the ordinary film takes anywhere from two to three years to move from pre- to post-production, Rendition and the politically-charged films of the summer that went before it are but the vanguard of a new wave of works confronting the fallout of the divisive decision to take the war to the enemy after the tragedy of 9/11. Many more are sure to follow.
Roger Ebert, who saw Rendition at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, described the film as “perfect.” That’s the word.