Judge Daniel MacDonald checks out a rare Meryl Streep performance not nominated for an Oscar.
What if someone you love…just disappeared?
A stellar cast heads up this timely picture about a most controversial U.S. policy.
Facts of the Case
Egyptian-born American Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally, Munich), on his way back to the United States from a South African business trip, is forcefully apprehended, hooded, and spirited away to an unnamed North African country before he knows what has happened to him: he has been the subject of "extraordinary rendition," suspected of terrorist involvement and sent outside the U.S. border, where torture is an acceptable interrogation technique.
His wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line) is left to wonder why her husband is no longer listed on the passenger manifest of the plane on which he was supposed to arrive, despite having boarded it. She turns to an old friend, Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard, Jarhead), who works for a powerful senator (Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine) and may be able to help figure out where the man has gone, and why. Their efforts are deterred by hawkish CIA figure Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep, The Hours), who authorized the rendition of El-Ibrahimi based on classified evidence.
Meanwhile, an inexperienced agent named Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal, Zodiac) is tasked with supervising the "enhanced interrogation," and grows increasingly uncomfortable with the results he sees. And the interrogator himself (Yigal Naor, Munich) must come to terms with his daughter's growing affection for a youth involved in extremist activities.
Rendition is a good film. It features a solid set of performances and a couple of dynamite ones, tells a compelling tale with immediacy and style, and is bound to provoke lengthy discussions between thoughtful viewers. It is a meaty piece of entertainment. I was expecting a great film, though; unfortunately Rendition doesn't quite get there.
First, what's good about it? Two words: Jake Gyllenhaal. The vowel-abundant actor turns in a subtle, internal, very still performance in which never for a second does his character look comfortable. Shoulders up around his ears, Freeman is a character who doesn't want to be where he is and doesn't want to be doing what he's been doing, but he does it anyway. This is as intense a role as we've ever seen him in, with a smile never crossing his face, and he embodies the foreboding tone of the scenes in which he appears.
Unfortunately, what's problematic about Rendition also involves Gyllenhaal's character. As the subject's torture continues, and Freeman's conscience returns, he begins to take on a heroic quality that undermines the picture's message—his compassion makes the North African authorities look all the more cruel, which tends to erase the fact that the CIA requested the torture to begin with.
Beyond this, Rendition seems to avoid having a substantive debate on the subject in favor of predictable plot points and pat pronouncements. Streep's character has little depth and no remorse for the action she's taken—and, fair enough, she makes a brief but compelling argument for why that is. Beyond that quick exchange and an excellent scene with Sarsgaard and Arkin as the senator expresses fear of being labeled a terrorist-lover, characters' views are rarely challenged in any intellectual sense. Each is playing a cog in the machine that makes an extraordinary rendition happen. Add to this the fact that Reese Witherspoon's character is given relatively little to do, despite the obvious emotional turmoil she must be experiencing, and you have what feels a lot like a missed opportunity.
But, like I said, it's still a good film that's worth seeing. Director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) and phenomenal cinematographer Dion Beebe (Miami Vice) have crafted a gorgeous-looking film that eschews the now-conventional handheld camerawork that usually accompanies international political thrillers for classically composed shots taking full advantage of the 2.35:1 frame. Thoughtful images enhance the more thoughtful moments.
Rendition debuts on DVD with a crisp image and rich colors, showing only the occasional instance of dithering and minor edge enhancement. The audio is dynamic and enveloping, using subtly surround effects throughout and jumping to life when the score kicks in. Dialogue is easy to understand and does not tear.
Hood provides a chatty commentary discussing metaphors and character motivations throughout the running time. "Outlawed" is a powerful 26-minute documentary, included at Hood's request, which investigates the practice of rendition as used by the United States. The 18 minutes of deleted scenes are almost entirely comprised of a wisely deleted subplot of Freeman becoming increasingly paranoid about phone calls made by his girlfriend, plus a slightly longer ending that I think would have been better than what is in the final cut. Finally, a nearly 30-minute behind-the-scenes documentary takes a pleasing fly-on-the-wall approach to Hood's filming of Rendition showing the challenges and successes of working in a foreign country with a multi-lingual crew.
The basic premise of Rendition is so inherently compelling—and potentially enraging—that I'm sure a more challenging picture will tackle the same topic before too long. I still recommend seeing Rendition for its skillful craftwork and a great performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, even if it doesn't quite live up to its pedigree.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
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