Wednesday, October 24, 2007

RENDITION turns a serious issue into standard sentimental fare

As befits any glossy, Hollywood, issues-based drama, RENDITION weaves together three different plot strands on two continents and features an uncaring Senator in a three-piece suit. This is, I admit, a rather flippant opening sentence to a review of a movie that desperately wants to be a serious, intelligent, emotionally engaging drama. Sadly, it falls short.

The subject matter is certainly serious, but this film does not treat it with respect. The first segment of the film takes place in an un-named North African country. The young daughter of a police chief has run off with a young boy who tragically turns out to be a suicide bomber. His bomb does not kill her father but a CIA operative who happens to be in a passing car. This triggers the story of the second, inter-woven segment of the film, in which Anwar Il-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) is the victim of an extraordnary rendition to North Africa, where he is tortured at the behest of the CIA on suspicion of organising the bombing. The third segment sees Anwar's heavily-pregnant wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) lobby her friend (Peter Sarsgaard), his boss the Senator (Alan Arkin) and the CIA big-wig (Meryl Streep).

So, big issues all round, namely what is the optimal trade-off between security and liberty? And is it ever justifiable to remove one man's liberty to secure, (as cited here) 7,000 Londoners' freedom?

But, to my disappointment, director Gavin Hood turns what could potentially be a very intelligent film into a rather banal Hollywood drama. It starts with small choices. He and the script-writer give the victim of rendition a heavily pregnant wife to manipulate us into feeling more sympathetic for them. The exchanges between the wife and the politicians have none of the sparkle or profundity of the Streep/Cruise conversation in LIONS FOR LAMBS. Alan Arkin is wasted in a cameo as the Senator and Streep looks far less menacing than in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and far less interested in her role than in LIONS FOR LAMBS. In the North African scenes, I thought Jake Gyllenhaal gave a fine performance as the CIA operative who has to witness the torture. But his character's credibility is sacrificed to the requirement for a Hollywood ending. In fact, pretty much the only story that is universally well-acted and emotionally engaging without being manipulative is the love story between the police-chief's daughter and the jihadist. These two kids bring more commitment and transparent emotion to the film than the rest of the high-wattage cast put together.

RENDITION played Toronto 2007 and is on release in Canada, the UK and the US. It opens in Singapore, Slovenia, Denmark and Iceland later in October. It opens in Argentina, Greece, Australia, Germany and France in November. It opens in France in December, in Belgium and the Netherlands in January 2008 and in Norway and South Africa in February.

SPOILER FILLED FINAL COMMENT: It seems to me self-evident that the one thing a film about rendition should categorically NOT have is a happy ending. But even if the director decides he wants to go down this route, I still don't see how this film could have ended on such a note. The CIA know that Anwar has escaped and that he will go back to the US to be with his family. Furthermore, they know he can only enter under his US passport. So why don't they just "render" him again when he lands at Chicago? If only to save themselves from a PR stink? Douglas has no story if Jeremy doesn't turn up in the US, after all.

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