Gavin Hood’s compelling examination of American crimes

2007-12-31 00:00

FILM: Rendition

Nu Metro

THE title refers to “extraordinary rendition”, a bizarre American euphemism for kidnapping people and shipping them off to a place where torture is part of the interrogation process, without sullying the Land of the Free. It’s a nasty concept, and exposing it is the first big plus for Gavin Hood’s film.

The story — based on real events — follows an Egyptian-born engineer, Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), who lives in Chicago with his pregnant American wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) and their six-year-old son. When the action opens, he is returning from a conference in Cape Town. The CIA has some flimsy suspicions about him, and so he is picked up and effectively all trace of him vanishes. He is whisked off to an unnamed north African country and tortured by the local head thug, Abasi Fawal — an excellent Yigal Naor.

Following the death of America’s resident spook in a suicide bombing, the task of observing and reporting back to the States falls to an embassy pen pusher (Jake Gyllenhaal) and he — eventually — begins to feel that the process might just be a bit flawed. Meanwhile, back home, Isabella is moving heaven and earth to find out what has happened to her husband.

Hood is meticulous in creating back stories for the main players. Fawal is having problems with his student daughter who has taken up with an unsuitable boy, Khalid. He, in turn, has his own reasons for becoming an extremist — reasons that are obviously there to make the audience ponder the wisdom of creating martyrs.

It is a powerful piece of filmmaking, if at times a little pedantic. Perhaps the main flaw is a lack of emotional involvement with the characters, although most of the performances are impeccable. Witherspoon was designed to play strong, determined women and her struggle through the red tape and bureaucracy of Washington is genuinely moving. Unfortunately, Meryl Streep as the CIA head and the rock on which Isabella’s momentum looks destined to flounder, is little more than a caricature of a bitch. And poor Jake Gyllenhaal is merely asked to look gloweringly agonised. He hardly has any dialogue to help him along, and his brooding face peering into the bottom of a glass becomes rather tiresome.

But despite its flaws, this is a brave and compelling film. Anwar is an innocent man, which makes his treatment all the worse, but the strength of the film is that the audience is never allowed to think that while it is terrible for an innocent to be caught up in the machine, it would have been fine if he was guilty. It wouldn’t, and the film confronts that head on.

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