How timely ‘Rendition’ is. Just days after the testimony of Michael Mukasey, President Bush’s nominee for Attorney General, who believes that the practice of waterboarding may not be illegal under the Constitution, and that the President may supercede laws enacted by Congress, comes the nationwide release of a film that quietly, but harshly, shows us what we as a country have acceded to in the name of national security. ‘Rendition’ is unabashedly honest about the subject matter of torture and the rule of law. It will be attacked vehemently from the right wing under the presumption that an exploration of what this abhorrent practice has cost us as a nation is somehow anti-American.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. ‘Rendition’ is not preachy, and lets both sides of the debate have their say. The only villain of the film is the Islamic suicide bomber whose act of mass murder begins the film’s chain of events. But, by daring to suggest that there is more to ending terrorism than killing terrorists off one by one, the film presents a discomforting look at the tragic consequences our national policy may have, both abroad and at home.
What catalyzes the film’s three interweaving storylines is the explosion of a suicide bomb in a crowded marketplace in an unnamed Middle-Eastern country. The CIA scrambles to investigate any leads possible and, soon thereafter, an Egyptian named Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) does not arrive at the Chicago airport he was en route to, despite having boarded the flight in South Africa. His pregnant wife, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) becomes increasingly worried as no sign of Anwar appears, and she is left to explain how a man can get on a plane in one country but not get off it in another.
Her search leads her to an old friend now working for U.S. Senator Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard), who tries to use his connections within Washington to find out what happened. Few are willing to talk to him. We know the answer: He has been ‘extraordinarily rendered,’ or covertly transferred in unmarked planes to the country of the bombing, where he is stripped naked, shackled to a chair and asked by a menacing figure what he knows about the bombing. El-Ibrahimi insists emphatically that he knows nothing about any extremist group, and is then laid on his back with a hood over his head and water is poured over him. Waterboarding, as this is called, makes the victim feel as if he is drowning but leaves no permanent organ damage.
Also in the room is American CIA analyst Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has been ordered there by his immediate boss Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep) to observe, but not interfere with, the ‘interrogation.’ He is only an analyst, and unsure of what his role is. After a fruitless session of interrogation, he calls Whitman and suggests that it may not be working.
‘You’re new to this, aren’t you?’ asks Whitman.
‘Yes, it’s my first torture,’ shoots back Freeman.
‘The United States doesn’t torture,’ insists Whitman.
Director Gavin Hood defines the world of ‘Rendition’ with contrasts between light and darkness, sound and silence. The brightness of the Washington offices and the noisy streets of the unnamed country feel like chaotic places compared to the unnerving darkness and dripping water of the room where El-Ibrahimi is being held. When we are outside, the world is illuminated to the point of distraction; when inside, the silence is deafening. Both settings have the effect of slight disquiet, and neither feels entirely safe.
What makes ‘Rendition’ so effective is how subtle and downplayed it is. One imagines a lesser director filling this film with histrionics and overacting by Freeman, having suffered severe trauma witnessing the interrogations and now questioning the very meaning of freedom, or by Isabella, desperate to find any information at all about her missing husband. But such spectacles would distract from the core of this story, which is simply that a man has been deprived of due process of law and made to suffer for no substantial reason. The actors’ performances are appropriate and convincing, but not overwhelmingly so; Gyllenhaal is visibly unaffected by what he witnesses, but we see in his eyes and face afterward that something is truly troubling him. Witherspoon is heart-wrenching in her search for information, and Streep plays her character, which is the closest thing to an antagonist in the film, as assertive and intimidating, but not evil or stereotypically amoral.
Ultimately this film will be criticized for its perceived message, but such criticism misses the apolitical nature of the subject matter. The film does not say that torture is wrong, it merely says this is what torture does and asks the viewer if that is acceptable. Those who demonize the film do so only because they are uncomfortable being asked the question, which means they have never genuinely asked it of themselves. But it still needs to be answered.