the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


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.


Blogger Peter T Chattaway said...

Reese's character is a convert? I don't recall that detail. If anything, I seem to recall the film following the somewhat standard and predictable approach in which the Middle Easterner wrongly accused of the crime is actually a pretty secular kind of bloke. But it's possible I'm forgetting something, in which case the film isn't making the "Muslim face of America" point quite as strongly as you suggest.

And are films like this really part of a "vanguard"? We've had movies dealing with the "tragedy" of 9/11 (it was a deliberately planned attack, not an accident or natural disaster, let alone anything that would match the classical definition of the word) and its aftermath for a while now; the first examples that come to mind, since you mention one of them here, are War of the Worlds and Munich, which represented a sort of politically-resonant one-two punch on Spielberg's part back in 2005. And those came out a year or more after Fahrenheit 9/11, of course. If anything, the box-office failure of explicitly topical films like In the Valley of Elah and The Kingdom suggests that Hollywood might want to back off from films like these for a while. Reportedly would-be distributors and the like were already beginning to back off from such films during the Toronto festival, where there was something of an overload of this genre.

6:10 PM  
Blogger Brandon said...

There was a series of tiny things that indicated she was a convert. When we first see her playing outside, she is wearing a long, traditional Muslim blouse beneath her coat. The most obvious moment was when she was offered a cup of coffee and responded, "No...I can't drink coffee," as Muslims are not allowed to ingest caffeine.

Sure, “War of the Worlds” and “Munich” address our current crisis. But both do so in a roundabout way, placing the action in a sci fi setting, or a past historical context. We are just now starting to see films that address Iraq and its repercussions that are in/of/and pointedly about the problems to which they are directed. Whether or not Hollywood might want to back off of them remains to be seen. Certainly the box-office may indicate that is the case.

6:19 PM  
Blogger Peter T Chattaway said...

Hmmm, I assumed the coffee thing was because she was pregnant.

If Reese is wearing Muslim clothing for reasons beyond the fact that she has married into a Middle Eastern family, what does this say about her husband? Am I misremembering when I say that he claimed to be a pretty secular kind of bloke? Because if he did claim that and he actually isn't pretty secular, then that is kind of ... suspicious, at least. But now we're at the stage where I kind of wish I had been making some notes; I saw the film almost a month ago.

Granted, the Spielberg examples I cited are somewhat "roundabout" (though Fahrenheit 9/11, which came out a year earlier and which I also cited, certainly wasn't; of course, that was a documentary, not a drama; and then there are films like The Road to Guantanamo, which came out a year ago and is somewhere in-between the two categories).

But I think you err in suggesting that this is all about "Iraq". Some of your congressmen apologized yesterday to Maher Arar, a Canadian born in Syria who passed through your country in 2002 -- before the Iraq War began -- and was sent by your government to the country of his birth, and tortured there, under the terms of "extraordinary rendition". The "current crisis", as you put it, is much bigger than the Iraq War and pre-dates the Iraq War, and films dealing with "extraordinary rendition" would no doubt have been made even if there weren't an Iraq War.

8:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are you kidding, caffeine is allowed in islma, she wouldn't drink it because she was pregnant not becausse of her religion. Alcohol is forbidded not caffeine.

9:00 PM  

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