Gavin Hood, “Rendition” (2007)
Rarely does Hollywood release a film that attempts to address and deal with issues critical of US government foreign and domestic policy in an honest way: “Rendition” is one such film that criticises the use of renditioning (arresting suspected terrorists and sending them to foreign countries to force them to give up information under torture, all under the supervision of US intelligence agencies), in a context that makes renditioning personal and puts it into a wider context that audiences can understand. The film is also to be commended for trying to show how terrorism might arise, how easily people might become terrorists and commit acts of terrorism, and how US policy itself influences people to resort to violence when everything else they do is either spurned or met with violence. If that weren’t enough, the film describes how individuals can be plunged into a Kafkaesque world of secrecy, violence and trauma through bureaucratic incompetence and indifference.
The film manages all of these things by running three linked subplots in parallel. The main plot concerns Egyptian-born US resident Anwar el Ibrahim (Omar Metwally) who is arrested at Washington airport after his return from a business trip to South Africa en route to his family in Chicago; he is questioned by a CIA officer who doubts his answers and who then sends the confused man to Egypt where he falls into the hands of the interior minister Abasi (Yigal Naor) and CIA agent Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal). Both Abasi and Freeman are after information about a recent suicide bomb attack in a street market that killed Freeman’s boss; the man’s death puts Freeman into his boss’s place and Freeman, somewhat a novice, finds himself responsible for Ibrahim’s welfare. Abasi tries to force information out of Ibrahim by various tortures (stripping him naked, keeping him in isolation, waterboarding, electrocution) while Freeman feeds the official questions and observes the questioning. Freeman increasingly feels conflicted over the increasing levels of torture Abasi metes out to Ibrahim and Ibrahim’s distress, and while the agent tries to cope with the demands of his job in the usual ways – drinking to excess, visiting strip clubs – he finds he is only delaying his own mental breaking point if he does not do something for his victim.
Meanwhile Ibrahim’s wife Isabella (Witherspoon) is frantic with worry at her husband’s disappearance and contacts an old flame Adam Smith (Peter Sarsgard), who is an aide to a powerful senator (Alan Arkin) in Washington, in the hope that he can find out what has happened to Ibrahim. Smith does what he can but comes up against two thick brick walls in the form of his senator boss and CIA head Corinne Whitman (Meryl Streep) who deny any knowledge of the CIA renditioning programme or of Ibrahim’s whereabouts. Smith’s inability to find out anything more about Ibrahim and his unwillingness to upset his boss and jeopardise his own job prospects strains his friendship with Isabella. Isabella’s distress threatens her pregnancy and she goes into early labour.
The third subplot deals with Abasi’s wayward and headstrong teenage daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach) who, unwilling to marry a boy chosen for her by her father, runs away and shacks up with a sensitive and artistic teenage boy of working-class background. The boy tells Fatima about his family and his older brother in particular. The film gradually reveals that the older brother had been recruited by a secret jihadi group to carry out acts of violence, and that the last such act led to the brother’s arrest, torture and death at the hands of Abasi’s police. The younger boy, keen to avenge his brother’s death, joins the same jihadi group whose leaders cynically plan to use him as a suicide bomber to stage an attack on Abasi’s life. Abasi himself races against time to find Fatima before she puts herself in danger as a result of her relationship with the would-be jihadi martyr.
Because the film’s message unites these stories, they are under-developed and the characters serve more as stereotypes than as real individuals. Even so, all the actors do what they can with the skimpy material they are given and they achieve quite a lot in an understated way. Gyllenhaal, Sarsgard and Witherspoon are to be commended with fleshing out their characters caught in moral dilemmas not of their own making but of the making of the system and ideology they work for or live under. Metwally has the least to do for a major role which involves being kicked around a lot and not being able to do much about that – but his character maintains some dignity even when Freeman has lost his. Streep’s Whitman is an all too obvious villain with a fake Deep South accent. Naor’s portrayal of Abasi as chief torturer and loving if patriarchal and traditional father is not especially nuanced but the character’s attempts to control fate and individuals that fail disastrously for him and his family are understandable and might elicit some sympathy. Fatima, her boyfriend and his dead brother become as much innocent victims as they are perpetrators of violence. The jihadi leaders capitalise on legitimate Egyptian working-class concerns about being exploited and harassed by government authorities (working together with the Americans) to insert and promote their own self-serving agenda based on their narrow interpretations of the Qu’ran and sharia law.
The film’s resolution of its plot strands isn’t entirely convincing and much of it is contrived to appease a mainstream audience for whom the sanctity of family is a given. One wonders though how the surviving characters will be able to pick up the pieces of broken relationships and careers, or relationships sorely tested by loss. The way in which the film handles its subplots so they run concurrently rather than in sequential order throws the character of Abasi into something of a moral minefield: has he learned anything from the tragedy he suffers? To this viewer, he seems not to have. Can Freeman and the Ibrahims do any better?
Even with its flaws, “Rendition” is still a valuable film for the way it deals with important issues in an age of increasing Cold War Version 2.0 propaganda and the demonising of Arab and Muslim peoples.