Some art is created for its own sake and some art has a purpose beyond entertainment. Rendition, from director Gavin Hood, definitely falls into the latter category. While an intriguing story in its own right, there is also a timely message that the creators wish to deliver to the audience, and it doesn’t take a subtle mind to detect it. The intent is obvious from the title alone.
There are many characters who figure prominently in the story and it would be difficult to name one as the lead character. My nomination would go to Jake Gyllenhaal’s Douglas Freeman, whose difficult choice at the end of the movie makes him the most compelling character. Douglas is a new agent stationed somewhere in the Arab world. When a terrorist attack kills one of his partners, he must fill in his fallen comrade’s role. This includes the interrogation of an Egyptian born American resident who is suspected of complicity in various terrorist plots. The inhumanity of the interrogation, coupled with Douglas’ growing suspicion that the suspect, Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), is innocent begin to gnaw on Douglas’ conscious.
The story also involves Anwar’s wife Isabella, played by Reese Witherspoon, as she desperately searches for her missing husband. Anwar is kidnapped by government officials upon landing in the US on a flight from South Africa. They attempt to erase all record of his being on the flight, but Isabella’s investigations reveal that he must have been on the flight. She turns to an old friend who works for a US senator, begging him to help her navigate the treacherous waters in which she finds herself.
And then there is the family of the chief investigator Abasi Fawal (Yigal Naor), whose daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach) he has decided shall marry a young man of his choosing, but she has already fallen in love with another. She runs away from home to be with her love, but perhaps the young man is not all that he seems.
It shall no doubt come as no surprise that the movie takes a stand against the practice of rendition. I find myself in agreement with the creators, but I am still relieved that, other than a comment here and there, the film does not get too preachy. It does not, however, flinch from showing what rendition is reputed to be. If the movie goer is familiar with the standard civil-libertarian arguments against rendition and torture, most of the plot will be predictable. Not in a boring way, but the first 90% of the movie holds few real surprises.
The end, however, is another matter. I must admit that I did not see it coming and even found myself momentarily confused before I was able to get oriented. The climax is inspired creativity and improves on an already solid effort.
The strongest aspect of the movie is the acting, and it’s a good thing, because the weakest aspect is the development of characters. There is little in the script, and perhaps even less in the direction, to flesh out the characters and make them endearing and memorable. The actors are asked to create characters, and fortunately they do a nice job. Led by, surprise surprise!, Meryl Streep’s exceptional performance as Senator Corrine Whitman, the movie will be a delight for those who admire a fine performance by a thespian.
As for the director, he does a very nice job of composing photographs. The locations were well chosen, the D.P. certainly knew what he was doing and many of the shots are interesting to see. Less impressive is how the director uses the camera and actors to make a unique vision, like Spielberg habitually does, but the overall effort is still solid. Between this and Michael Clayton, it looks like we’ve finally entered that time of year when a few directors might take a shot at equaling or even surpassing Zodiac. Rendition doesn’t achieve it, but it was a nice time at the theater, and a timely issue as well.