© 2007 Ray Wong
A political drama-thriller that boasts an all-star cast, Rendition examines current hot topics such as terrorism, war, national security, and torture.
Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) is an Egyptian national who holds a green card and is married to American citizen Isabella (Reese Witherspoon). During one of his business trips to South Africa, Anwar is detained by the CIA for his apparent involvement in a suicide bombing in North Africa that has resulted in the death of an American agent. Anwar maintains that he doesn't know anything, even though calls from known terrorists have been traced to his cell phone. Since it's unlawful to detain a US resident indefinitely, Director Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep) authorizes Anwar to be transfered to Africa for "rendition": handing suspected terrorists to a foreign country where torture is allowed.
Anwar's disappearance prompts his wife to make her way to Washington D.C. to seek help. Her old flame, Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard) is assistant to Senator Hawkins (Alan Arkin). Alan's investigation leads him to Corrine Whitman, but his confrontations may jeopardize both the Senator and his own political career.
Meanwhile, Anwar is being interrogated and tortured at Abasi Fawal's (Yigal Naor) facility. Fawal was the target of the terrorist attack, which resulted in 19 deaths. The rendition is being observed by American agent Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who was at the scene of the bombing and lost one of his colleagues. As the torture becomes more and more severe, Douglas questions their validity, Anwar's innocence, and whether he's doing the right thing in the name of patriotism.
The ensemble cast includes Reese Witherspoon (Just like Heaven) as a distraught wife whose engineer husband simply disappears. Despite her star billing, she doesn't really have much to do -- her part of the story is actually rather minimal, even though she represents the audiences' confusion and frustration of the whole mess. Jake Gyllenhaal (Zodiac) is adequate as the CIA analyst whose conscience is called into question as he witnesses the tortures. Meryl Streep (Evening) is precise and effective as the cold, determined operational director who would do anything in the name of national security. And Peter Sarsgaard (Year of the Dog) is sincere as someone who is reluctantly caught in the cross-fire.
Omar Metwally (Munich) is excellent as Anwar, an American who is wrongfully accused of being a terrorist. His ordeal is hard to watch. Mohammed Khauas (Munich) gives an interesting performance as a boy who falls in love with his enemy's daughter, Fatima, portrayed by newcomer Zineb Oukach as sweet and passive. Yigal Naor (Munich) stands out as Fatima's father, Abasi, by showing both his ruthlessness and vulnerability.
The script by Kelley Sane (Franchesca Page) is intense, taut and complex. Following multiple threads, the plot weaves three different points of view into one story: Anwar's wife's, Douglas Freeman's, and Khalid's. It is suspenseful in that we never really know what is going to happen next, whether Anwar is telling the truth, and what actually happens at the bombing. The screenplay also attains authenticity as the actors speak in their languages (with subtitles). Part of the time line is confusing and misleading, but Sane successfully spins the yarn and ties up the loose ends at the end.
However, the suspenseful drama/thriller is marred by inconsistencies and a somewhat heavy-handed message. The situations that lead to Anwar's arrest and subsequent rendition are rather thin, coincidental and incredulous. I mean, couldn't the CIA have done better than following just one lead? While it tries to present the various points of view, we can't help but feel its judgment by way of the character developments: Alan Smith is contemplative and sensitive, Isabella El-Ibrahimi is all-American, and Corrine Whitman is cold and distant. Such subtle commentaries do not go unnoticed and they give the story a perceived "liberal" bias. We would be hard pressed to not get the message: torture is useless; rendition is bad; violence breeds more violence.
Direct Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) has a gentle style, even in the context of the intense drama. Using careful and smart editing, the story unfolds slowly and close to the vest, revealing only enough information to keep the audiences hooked. The suspense and tension are palpable. Hood also succeeds in coherently weaving the different plot threads together. While the pace falters in places, the plot is easy to follow -- except for the plot thread involving Khalid and Fatima. The time line is not clear until near the end. I understand the reason (to build suspense and mystery) but the result is jarring and it yanks the audiences out of the story.
Despite its flaws, the film is intense, dramatic, complex, and relevant. The performances are generally effective and the storytelling gripping and suspenseful. With a taut script and under a skillful direction, the film is a worthy rendition of the current crop of political drama-thrillers.
Stars: Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep, Peter Sarsgaard, J.K. Simmons, Alan Arkin, Omar Metwally, Mohammed Khouas, Zineb Oukach, Yigal Naor
Director: Gavin Hood
Writer: Kelley Sane
Distributor: Revolution Studios/Columbia Pictures
MPAA Rating: R for torture/violence and language
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Script – 8
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 8
Production – 8
Total – 7.7 out of 10