In this day and age in which just about every other news story involves discussions of waterboarding, images of Abu Ghraib, or tales of forced detentions at Guantanamo Bay, Gavin Hood's "Rendition" is about as up-to-the-minute and timely a movie as is ever likely to come out of the entertainment mills of mainstream Hollywood. It's not, by any stretch of the imagination, a perfect film, but neither does it merit the caterwauling opprobrium it has received at the hands of critics from all across the ideological and political spectrum.
The term "rendition" refers to the ability of the CIA to arrest any individuals it suspects of terrorist dealings, then to whisk them away in secret to a foreign country to interrogate and torture them for an indefinite period of time, all without due process of law. Anwar El-Ibrahimi is an Egyptian man who has been living for twenty years in the United States. He has an American wife, a young son and a new baby on the way. He seems a very unlikely candidate for a terrorist, yet one day, without warning or explanation, Anwar is seized and taken to an undisclosed location where he is subjected to brutal torture until he admits his involvement with a terrorist organization that Anwar claims to know nothing about.
On the negative side, "Rendition" falters occasionally in its storytelling abilities, often biting off a little more than it can chew in terms of both plot and character. The ostensible focal point is Douglas Freeman, a rookie CIA agent who is brought in to observe Anwar's "interrogation" at the hands of Egyptian officials. The problem is that, as conceived by writer Kelley Sane and enacted by Jake Gyllenhaal, Freeman seems too much of a na?ve "boy scout" to make for a very plausible agent, and he isn't given the screen time he needs to develop fully as a character. We know little about him at the beginning and even less, it seems, at the end. He "goes through the motions," but we learn precious little about the man within. Thus, without a strong center of gravity to hold it all together, the film occasionally feels as if it is coming apart at the seams, with story elements flying off in all directions. A similar problem occurs with Anwar's distraught wife, played by Reese Witherspoon, a woman we never get to know much about apart from what we can see on the surface. Gyllenhaal and Witherspoon have both proved themselves to be fine actors under other circumstances, but here they are hemmed in by a restrictive screenplay that rarely lets them go beyond a single recurring note in their performances.
What makes "Rendition" an ultimately powerful film, however, is the extreme seriousness of the subject matter and the way in which two concurrently running plot lines elegantly dovetail into one another in the movie's closing stretches. It may make for a slightly more contrived story than perhaps we might have liked on this subject, but, hey, this is Hollywood after all, and the film has to pay SOME deference to mass audience expectations if it is to get itself green lighted, let alone see the light of day as a completed project.
Two of the supporting performances are particularly compelling in the film: Omar Metwally who makes palpable the terror of a man caught in a real life Kafkaesque nightmare from which he cannot awaken, and Yigal Naor who makes a surprisingly complex character out of the chief interrogator/torturer. Meryl Streep, Alan Arkin and Peter Sarsgaard also make their marks in smaller roles. Special mention should also be made of the warm and richly hued cinematography of Dion Beebe.
Does the movie oversimplify the issues? Probably. Does it stack the deck in favor of the torture victim and against the evil government forces? Most definitely. (One wonders how the movie would have played if Anwar really WERE a terrorist). Yet, the movie has the guts to tread on controversial ground. It isn't afraid to raise dicey questions or risk the disapproval of some for the political stances it takes. It openly ponders the issue of just how DOES a nation hold fast to its hard-won principle of "civil liberties for all" in the face of terrorism and fear. And just how much courage does it take for people of good will to finally stand up and say "enough is enough," even at the risk of being branded terrorist-appeasing and unpatriotic by those in power? (The movie also does not, in any way, deny the reality of extreme Islamic terrorism).
Thus, to reject "Rendition" out of hand would be to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. "Rendition" may not be perfect, but it IS good, and it has something of importance to say about the world in which we now live. And that alone makes it very much worth seeing.