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A Didactic, Compromised Misfire

Directed by Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) and written by Kelley Sane (Franchesca Page), Rendition dramatizes one of the fundamental issues facing America in a post-9/11 world: should civil and constitutional liberties give way to so-called national security concerns when faced with the threat of terrorism?

“Rendition” refers to a highly controversial practice of kidnapping and “rendering” non-Americans to foreign countries for interrogation free of constitutional, legal, or international protections. Begun under the Clinton administration and significantly expanded under the Bush administration after 9/11, ostensibly to prevent future terrorist acts, the practice of rendition seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future, regardless of which political party wins next year’s presidential election.

An American black ops team kidnaps Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), an Egyptian-American suspected of ties to a terrorist group, as he returns home from a business trip to Cape Town, South Africa. The black ops team “renders” Anwar to an unnamed North African country where he can be interrogated and, if necessary, tortured. With the help of Abasi Fawal (Yigal Naor), the head of a secret prison, the Americans hope to extract information related to Al-Hazim, a terrorist organization responsible for a suicide bombing that left 19, including an American CIA agent, dead and another 75 injured.

The CIA orders an analyst, Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), to observe Fawal as he interrogates Anwar. A strict authoritarian at home, Fawal has to contend with a rebellious daughter, Fatima (Zineb Oukach), who spends her free time with her boyfriend, Khalid El-Emin (Moa Khouas), a Muslim fundamentalist and political radical.

After Anwar's disappearance, his American-born wife, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon), flies to Washington, D.C., in an effort to discover her husband's whereabouts and obtain his release. Isabella turns to an ex-boyfriend, Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard), an aide to a United States Senator (Alan Arkin), for help. Smith tells Isabella that Anwar has been "rendered" to North Africa on the direct orders of the CIA’s counter-terrorism chief, Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep).

Whitman insists that interrogating Anwar in North Africa will yield actionable intelligence and save lives. Thousands of miles away, Freeman begins to question the brutal methods Fawal and his men use to interrogate Anwar, first humiliating Anwar by stripping him naked, isolating him in a cramped cell, then quickly progressing to beatings, waterboarding, and electrocution. But Anwar doesn’t confess, forcing Freeman to decide to escalate the torture or disregard direct orders from Whitman.

With multiple, interweaving storylines and characters spread across two continents separated by distance, culture, and language, Rendition will remind moviegoers of Traffic and Syriana. However, the movie tries to do too much and, consequently, doesn’t do enough to illuminate the subject of rendition, which it handles reductively, or illuminate the real-world the legal, ethical, and moral quandaries two administrations have sidestepped in the name of fighting terrorism. With a pregnant, waddling, and very blonde homemaker as one of the only sympathetic figures and a naïve, inexperienced American analyst as her counterpart, Rendition is at its weakest when it’s focusing on these thinly developed characters.

On the other hand, Rendition, is at its most compelling when it focuses on Fatima, the interrogator's daughter, and her relationship with Khalid. But Fatima and Khalid aren’t onscreen long enough to lift Rendition beyond the frustratingly mediocre. Blame for that goes to risk-adverse Hollywood producers who confused good politics with good filmmaking.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


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