Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jan 15, 2009 11:18 pm 
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An ax to grind that only gets blunted

Todd McCarthy of Variety writes of this film: "One hopes that there is more verisimilitude to the North African scenes (shot in Morocco) than there is for the Chicago section; the block on which the Witherspoon character lives was quite clearly lensed in California, as it looks absolutely nothing like any street in Illinois." Well, how would he expect the "North African" scenes to have more verisimilitude than the Stateside ones? The Arab characters speak a mixed generic Arabic no actual people speak, and live in settings that are never specific either. If the Chicago of the movie is fake, at least a town is specified, but not for the town in "North Africa." Basically, Rendition is just one more American film about Arabs and terrorism and US intelligence that bandies about false generalizations in scenes that aren't real. And this time, the story isn't effective even as fantasy, perhaps because the movie has too much of an ax to grind.

Reviews of this 2007 release have (justifiably) chided the director, Gavin Hood, for turning a melodramatic, potentially wrenching and explosive story into something that winds up being muddled and flat. Maybe this came from trying to be subtle, but Hood had the wrong material for that. One must also fault the writer, Kelley Sane. How much does Sane really know about international politics, anti-terrorism, terrorism itself, particularly the Islamist kind--or about the US government and the Arab World? How much does any American mainstream filmmaker know about these things? Stephen Gaghan's almost over-researched Syriana was impossible to follow, but at least it gave a sense of the complexities and ironies of these tangled issues and worlds. But that seems to be an honorable exception that proves the general rule.

Here complex issues have been simplified to make a point about the euphemistically named "extraordinary rendition." This is the US practice of secretly kidnapping people suspected of involvement in terrorism and sending them to cooperating countries with low human rights standards like Egypt, Afghanistan, or Jordan to be tortured and interrogated. This is clearly cruel, unethical, and in violation of international law. Moreover in coldly practical terms it doesn't work very well. Besides being terrible for PR, it seems to have proven to be a poor intelligence-gathering device. This is especially true when, as has often happened, the victim turns out to be innocent. Such was true, most famously, in the well-publicized cases of Khaled al-Masri and Maher Arar. There may have been hundreds of renditions, dozens of which involved men we now know to have been wrongly accused. The practice and the term "extraordinary rendition" began with the Clinton administration, as is explained in the film, but was obviously stepped up after 9/11. Plainly the plot aims to critique this dubious tactic. But even assuming such an aim was worthwhile for a fiction feature, the effect is blunted by sequences that are paradoxically both simplistic in their assumptions and overcomplicated in their cross-editing.

Like Ridley Scott's disappointing Body of Lies and Jeffrey Nachmanoff's inaccurate Traitor, Rendition uses explosions as the starting point of its action. Somebody sets off a bomb that kills a CIA operative in that generic, unreal "North Africa." A younger, more innocent and less experienced CIA man called Freeman (Jake Gyllenhall), transparently conceived as the moral "heart'" of the piece, has survived the blast. He is immediately moved in to replace the dead operative and act as increasingly skeptical and shocked (but disappointingly limp) "observer" of "extraordinary rendition" interrogation-cum-torture designed to trace the imagined mastermind of the blast.

The CIA thinks it knows who was behind the bomb. They also--suddenly, out of the blue--think an Egyptian-born scientist called Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), a US resident married to a pregnant Reese Witherspoon, has received calls on his cell phone from this man. Terrorist monikers are confusing, and Americans aren't very good at Arabic names anyway: El-Ebahimi may not be at all involved. Nonetheless he is subjected to a terrible ordeal. A Stateside CIA lady (Meryl Streep, in full ice queen mode, doing one of her accents, this time southern) orders El-Ibrahimi, who's just returning from a conference in Johannesburg, to be "rendered" to where the bombing took place. (This, by the way, is not really the way "renditions" are usually located.)

To liven things up the local cop in charge of the brutal extra-legal interrogation is having family problems. He is Abasi Fawwal, played by Yigal Naor, an Israeli actor of Iraqi Jewish origins (when you want cruel, hire an Israeli). Fawwal's pretty daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach) is in love with Khalid (Moa Khouas), a young man whose Islamist group he's trying to disrupt. And there are other emotional complications, because the man the frantic Witherspoon seeks out to pull strings with a senator (Alan Arkin) is an old boyfriend (Peter Sarsgaard). Eventually Sarsgaard puts Witherspoon directly in contact with Arkin and Streep, with whom she pleads in vain for information about the whereabouts and safety of her disappeared husband. Meanwhile Ell-Ibrahimi gets tortured and Freeman watches and agonizes. To quote Variety again, "Locations skip around a lot and Hood's direction provides scant fluidity to knit them together." Yes, both the screenwriter and the director have bitten off more than they could chew.

Today's movies involving Arabs and terrorism in the post-9/11 world like Syriana, Traitor, Body of Lies, and Rendition make a pretense of sophistication. They have sequences shot in Arab countries, with Arabic dialogue. But the assumptions are dubious and the settings and dialogue are inauthentic. At bottom the treatment is not much more sophisticated or accurate than the stereotypes described in Jack Shaheen's survey of Hollywood movies, Real Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People.

Rendition is different from its Orientalist movie cousins in being a well-intentioned "message" film specifically aiming to expose an obviously brutal and extra-legal US practice. But this is material better treated in documentaries. Taxi to the Dark Side is such a film--a documentary dealing not specifically with "extraordinary rendition" but with closely related issues, in a powerful and strictly accurate way.

Rendition's plot hinges on the idea that Freeman, concluding that El-Ibrahimi is the wrong man and has no useful information, oversteps his authority and gets him out of the prison and back to Chicago. This plot twist overlooks the fact that "rendition" isn't just wrong when an innocent man can provide no information, but also when a guilty one spills the beans. Little is done to clarify the issues by a film as ill-informed and clumsy as Rendition.

┬ęChris Knipp 2009

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