Hebrew title: Hakira Me'Ever La Kavim. 120 min. In Englishand Arabic, with Hebrew titles.
If you're already convinced that torture is bad, you won't get much out of Rendition, a painstakingly conceived but lifeless movie about a little-known chapter in the history of post-9/11 human rights abuses by the US government. In earnest, TV movie-of-the-week fashion, Rendition tackles the problem of "extraordinary rendition," America's practice of spiriting detainees not yet charged with a crime away to another country where they can be tortured until they divulge their secrets. Because of the very nature of this practice, there's no way to know how widespread it is, but according to the movie it was first authorized under the Clinton administration and became more widespread after 9/11.
The vaguely plausible but not very compelling set up is that Isabella (Reese Witherspoon), the heavily pregnant mother of a small child, lives happily with her Egyptian-born husband, Anwar (Omar Metwally), a chemical engineer in the Chicago suburbs. She is first shown playing soccer (in spite of her advanced pregnancy) with her son amid the autumn foliage in their lovely yard, watched affectionately by Anwar's mother, who lives with them. How could anything bad happen to these good people, the moviemakers seem to be asking.
Well, it does.
Anwar calls from an engineering conference in South Africa to tell them he's on his way home. But when his plane arrives in the US, the trouble starts. He is suddenly hustled off to an interrogation room, although he has no idea why (if he actually had even an innocuous acquaintance with someone involved in terrorism, it would tarnish his halo - the plot depends on Anwar being more than 100 percent innocent).
Meanwhile, in an unnamed Middle Eastern country (Iraq?), Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), a recent addition to the CIA and so not entirely tainted by its pure evil, is at his apartment early in the morning, nuzzling a female co-worker, clad only in his underwear. I'd be less than honest if I didn't admit that for some in the audience, this was the high point of the film.
He has to meet a recent arrival from America, and on the way to the office, he witnesses a suicide bombing in a busy public square. It's important to the home office to catch those responsible, and the CIA's counter-terrorism czar, Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep), makes it her personal project. They know the name of one of the suspects and trace all the calls he made. Several of those calls, it turns out, were to Anwar's cellphone, and she orders his arrest. But since there's no other evidence against him, the slightly more humane officer who detains him suggests letting him go. No, she says, he must be transported to the country where the bombing took place, and the CIA can sit back and let the local officials torture him until he gives them the information they need. So he is handed over to the malevolent Abasi Fawal (Yigal Naor), who is in charge of the interrogation, supervised by the increasingly troubled Douglas.
Meanwhile, in an odd parallel to the recent film, A Mighty Heart, the story of kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl's widow's fight to find out what happened to her husband, Witherspoon heads to Washington where she looks up an old college friend, Alan (Peter Sarsgaard), who is a top aide to a shrewd US senator (Alan Arkin). Alan manages to find out that Anwar is being held overseas but is stonewalled by the Meryl Streep character's denials. Witherspoon wears her pregnancy like a badge of moral courage as she confronts one uncaring, unhelpful official after another. She glows as she tears up, her beautiful hair-do swaying as her chin trembles.
There's another plot, involving Fawal's daughter and her forbidden love for a fellow student, but it's not clear until the end what relevance this has to Anwar and Isabella's story. Once the connection is revealed, it doesn't really change anything.
Certainly, torture of this kind by a democracy is not a subject to be taken lightly, and no one would accuse the filmmakers of doing that. After the Abu Ghraib debacle and other recent scandals, there's no question that the US has interrogated and tortured prisoners with extreme cruelty. When I interviewed two of the subjects of the documentary, The Ritchie Boys, about German-Jewish young men who fled to America and joined the US army during World War II, where they specialized in interrogating Nazis, they emphasized (with pride) that although they were responsible for getting information out of the enemy during wartime, they never resorted to the kind of torture that the US has used in Iraq.
So are the filmmakers right to come down against torture and the suspension of civil rights? Absolutely. Do they display even-handedness by showing that terrorism causes great suffering? Yes. But does any of this make for a compelling movie? No. This isn't an op-ed piece; movies, even serious ones, are supposed to entertain. And that Rendition doesn't do, at least not once Gyllenhaal puts on his shirt. The cold-hearted villain of the piece is the Meryl Streep character, the chief of CIA covert operations, who plays the part with the same frozen dragon lady quality she displayed in The Manchurian Candidate remake.
Whereas in the old days, villains used to be ruthless gangsters and killers, now the really bad guys are the pillars of the US establishment - CIA officials, corporate executives and politicians. In place of deliciously evil criminal masterminds like Blofeld in the James Bond movies or Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs and its sequels, today Hollywood's liberal establishment stars are lining up to play these upper-echelon baddies (in movies such as Syriana and the Bourne films), but without the gusto of previous villains. Now it's all pained looks and furrowed brows and half-hearted attempts to explain their side of it. The closest this movie comes to a guy you love to hate is Yigal Naor as Abasi Fawal, the menacing torturer. Israeli movie fans may remember this actor fondly as a school principal in two movies, Saint Clara and Bonjour, Monsieur Shlomi. Directors seem to turn to him when they need someone to play an authority figure.
The filmmakers behind Rendition were obviously trying to make an important movie, but they forgot that it's hard for a film to have an impact if no one wants to see it.