Review:No Gray Area in `Rendition’

October 18, 2007 at 11:54 am Leave a comment

“Rendition” focuses on the U.S. government’s policy of transporting captured terror suspects to foreign countries for detention, interrogation and perhaps torture a topic that’s prime for debate and more than worthy for exploration in a film.

But there’s not much room for debate in director Gavin Hood’s first feature since winning the foreign-language Oscar for South Africa’s “Tsotsi” from 2005.

Everything is black and white here, a tremendous disservice considering the complexity of the issue. There’s also an oversimplification, an insulting dumbing-down, as if the audience were incapable of interpreting shades of gray.

The abduction of an Egyptian-born American (Omar Metwally) suspected of helping North African terrorists plot a deadly bombing is obviously a mistake. His pretty, pregnant wife (Reese Witherspoon, in her first role since winning an Oscar for “Walk the Line”) is left to worry, understandably, but her response is reduced to little more than increasingly shrieky grief.

The CIA analyst (Jake Gyllenhaal) assigned to monitor the suspect’s torture is unwavering in his disapproval; conversely, the CIA’s head of terrorism (Meryl Streep),

who ordered the rendition, is unflappable in her certainty.

Then, at the very end, the script from Kelley Sane takes a narrative twist that’s distractingly contradictory to the realism and relevance “Rendition” had been trying to achieve all along.

Walking in, we’re clearly expected to view this as a film of great importance, because of the subject matter and all the Oscar winners up there on the screen (the cast also includes Alan Arkin as a senator from the suspect’s home state of Illinois who refuses to help facilitate his release). Instead, it feels like a missed opportunity, though Hood does achieve some moments of wrenching intensity.

“Rendition” begins with Metwally’s chemical engineer, Anwar, flying home from a South African business conference and apparently disappearing before catching a connecting flight in Washington, D.C. That’s the way it initially looks to his wife, Witherspoon’s Isabella, who’s waiting for him in suburban Chicago with their young son and another baby on the way.

Meanwhile, in an unnamed North African country, an explosion has rocked a town’s central square. Its intended target was Abasi Fawal (Igal Naor), the head of the secret prison where terror suspects are taken for questioning and more, if they’re not forthcoming. He oversees this grueling process himself and takes great pride in his work (again, no moral dilemmas with him). And his teenage daughter (Zineb Oukach) happens to be dating a young Islamic fundamentalist (Moa Khouas) who may have been involved in the attack.

Pointing fingers at Anwar seems like a misunderstanding at first maybe a mix-up involving cell phone numbers and similar names. Nevertheless, Streep’s strident (and conspicuously Southern) Corinne Whitman declares dismissively, “Put him on the plane.” (She and Arkin, both villainous figures, get a few zingers here and there but their characters are drawn two-dimensionally.)

Isabella is left to do her own detective work with the help of an old college boyfriend (Peter Sarsgaard), who conveniently works as a top aide to Arkin’s Sen. Hawkins, who’s on Whitman’s committee and meets with her weekly. Which also seems too convenient. Sarsgaard brings the sort of nuance to his conflicted character we’ve come to expect from him in every role (“Kinsey,” “Shattered Glass”), and he does get one tantalizing exchange with Streep.

But Witherspoon, normally so bright and engaging in both comedies and dramas, doesn’t get to do much here besides furrow her brow, beg for information and eventually, shrilly, explode. A lot of actresses could have played this role; director Hood told The Associated Press that he wanted Witherspoon to help get his point across because “who better to help take that out there to that world than the all-American girl?”

His visuals do more to get his point across. Working with cinematographer Dion Beebe (also an Oscar winner), Hood creates a visceral, immediate sense of danger, and he certainly doesn’t shy away from showing us the elaborately cruel abuse Anwar suffers. Unfortunately, he ends up beating us over the head at the same time.

“Rendition,” a New Line Cinema release, is rated R for torture/violence and language. Running time: 122 minutes. Two stars out of four.



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