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El-Ibrahimi is transferred to a North African prison where Abasi Fawal (Yigal Naor) casually employs beatings, water soaked hoods, electrodes, humiliation and solitary confinement in a hole of a cell. Overseeing the interrogation is newbie CIA analyst Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) who bluntly tells Fawal, "This is my first torture." Freeman doesn't take to it very well and Fawal grows impatient with his American observer. In addition, Fawal has to deal with a rebellious daughter who's resisting an arranged marriage and is instead dating a politicized young Islamic man. Meanwhile, back in the states, Isabella hooks up with a college friend (Peter Sarsgaard) who is politically well-connected in Washington, D.C. The government, of course, denies any knowledge of Isabella's husband.

Reese Witherspoon plays a wife searching for her husband in Rendition (New Line)

In one respect, Rendition needs to be applauded for bringing a controversial subject to light within the context of a mainstream Hollywood movie. But director Gavin Hood and screenwriter Kelley Sane don't know what to do with their weighty subject matter. Their first mistake is to split their attention in too many different directions. Their primary concern is supposed to be rendition, but they also tackle what makes someone become a suicide bomber (better done in Paradise Now ); women's issues in Islamic countries (better done in any of Iranian Jafar Panihi's films); and the Bush administration's war on terrorism. Any single one of these would be enough for a movie, but to try to tackle all, results in none of the issues being dealt with in a satisfactory manner.


Then there's the problem of how all these issues play out, and unfortunately, they play out with stale melodrama. The fact that this is a mainstream Hollywood film means that it attempts to fit a complex and disturbing subject within a commercial formula designed to assure audiences that everything is OK. This means that the bad people need to get punished or some kind of comeuppance; the good people need to be rewarded; and the audience has to leave the theater feeling that things have been resolved. Unfortunately such an ending is not an accurate reflection of the real world. Extraordinary rendition continues; people linger in confinement without access to due process; and some families still have no information about their loved ones. In the film, so many things are made easy. El-Ibrahimi is handsome, clean-cut and speaks beautiful English. His beautiful blonde wife just happens to have a very well-connected friend who has the ear of a top-ranking senator. The CIA observer just happens to have a strong conscience and is willing to act in defiance of his superiors. All this means that the film only superficially explores the serious issues it raises.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Rendition (New Line Cinema)

If the filmmakers really wanted to tackle rendition in a provocative manner, what they should have done was to take someone who actually had terrorist ties and subjected that person to torture. Because the real question -- and it is one that Streep's character actually raises -- is this about one person or about the policy? It's easy to get outraged over an innocent man being tortured, but shouldn't we be outraged by the very idea of torture? As a civilized, law abiding country, don't we condone torture whenever anybody else employs it? Isn't the moral and correct stance to take one opposed to all forms of torture? Such ideas are implied in Rendition but are simplified by the man character's innocence. Gyllenhaal's Freeman quotes Shakespeare to suggest that information gathered from torture is unreliable and that for every man tortured "you create a thousand new enemies." And Sargaard's political aide mouths support for the constitution and due process. But both men are only motivated because they believe El-Ibrahimi is innocent. The more provocative but necessary argument to make would be that torture, even if the victim of torture is guilty of criminal behavior, is wrong. Personally, the notion of rendition just seems so contradictory to the ideals our country was founded on. Clarence Darrow once said, "You can protect your liberties in this world only by protecting the other man's freedom." I don't feel safer knowing that my government may be engaging in torture by proxy or placing themselves above the law or ignoring the law in the name of national security. Rendition touches on some of these ideas but sadly fails to develop any of them well.

Rendition does try to address the idea that many people hold, which is why I should fear any of the government's policies if I'm a law abiding citizen. By having El-Ibrahimi be innocent, the filmmakers do suggest to those people who are strong or even casual supporters of the tactics used by the Bush Administration that even innocent, law abiding citizens do have something to be concerned about.

Rendition (rated R for torture/violence and language) deals with issues that are worthy of discussion and that people should be made aware of. I guess it might be asking for too much to have a mainstream Hollywood film tackle such complex issues with more than superficial interest. Please check out some of the titles listed below for additional perspectives on similar issues.


Companion viewing: Paradise Now , The Circle, The War Within, The Road to Guantanamo . Tsotsi

Also check out Frontline/World's Extraordinary Rendition documentary on KPBS TV on November 6.

Additional information on extraordinary rendition:

Amnesty International

Opinio Juris

United Nations

New Yorker Magazine