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Film Review: Rendition, by Gavin Hood

Following in the wake of Syriana, Babel, and A Might Heart comes yet another dissection of US foreign policy and the ‘War on Terror’.  In an unnamed South African country, a suicide bombing targeting the local interrogator sparks off unexpected attention from the CIA when one of their agents is caught in the blast.  In the rush to find a suspect, Egyptian-born US resident Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) is arrested when his plane lands in Washington DC, and immediately shipped to overseas detention under the controversial ‘extraordinary rendition’ law that gives the film its title.  When his American wife (Reese Witherspoon) is told he was never on the flight, alarm bells ring, and she sets out to discover his whereabouts, drawing a Senatorial aide (Peter Sarsgaard) into her struggle.  Meanwhile, El-Ibrahimi has been handed to the interrogator whose attempted assassination sparked the whole palaver, and only fledgling CIA analyst Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) seems to care that there’s almost no evidence to justify his increasingly violent questioning.

Director Gavin (Tsotsi) Hood has gathered together an astonishing cast, which also includes Meryl Streep, Alan Arkin, and the ever-marvellous J. K. Simmons.  But sadly, for the most part he wastes them in under-written roles, with Arkin and Streep suffering particularly in their attempts to give life to cardboard cut-outs.  Only Gyllenhaal manages to make something of his character, turning his clichéd good-man-in-a-bad-situation role into a believable portrait of corrosive doubt and stress – and probably deserves an Oscar for achieving so much with so little.

As the above summary might suggest, part of the reason for so many underwritten parts is that we have one very busy plot here.  Additionally there’s a whole other sub-story, with the interrogators daughter fleeing an arranged marriage to go off with her boyfriend, who appears increasingly to be a more likely suspect than El-Ibrahimi.  This subplot does eventually dovetail back into the main one, in a surprisingly clever twist, but in the meantime it only serves to add to Rendition‘s main fault, which is that it tries to do too much and frequently ends up being slow, unfocused and distracting.

It’s billed, strangely, as a thriller, but of course it’s something altogether more purposeful – after all, no one without strong opinions makes a film on a subject like this.  And as much as Kelley Sane’s script strives for to do lip service to both sides of the argument, it’s clear where his bias lies.  Yet, when he succeeds in being equitable, it only makes it difficult to maintain an opinion in either direction – the terrorists, for example, are portrayed as so blankly unquestioning and determinedly violent that it’s easy to imagine how someone might be driven to terrible extremes to combat them.  Sometimes both sides seem totally without compassion, and at these points Rendition is simply numbing, though perhaps at its most realistic.  On the other hand, it has considerable impact when Sane’s outrage at his subject comes through, but also feels least convincing – especially in its contrived attempt to provide a satisfying ending.

Rendition will certainly hold your attention, and provide food for thought, whatever your feelings on the intensely difficult issues at its heart.  Ironically, by fumbling its attempts to make a point, it actually succeeds in being more provocative, though it’s hard to see much glimmer of hope amidst the horror it portrays.  It doesn’t entirely succeed as entertainment either, though the aforementioned eleventh hour plot twist is a very good one.  Taking that, the splendid cast, and the more successfully provocative scenes into account, I’d hesitantly recommend Rendition as a competent political thriller, with lots to say but not enough clarity in the telling.