Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Rendition -- Torture as propaganda

According to Wikipedia, "rendition is a 'surrender' or 'handing over' of persons particularly from one jurisdiction to another." Extraordinary rendition, in the context of this movie, refers to the transfer of suspected terrorists out of the US to a country where harsh interrogation takes place, even torture.

The plotline is ostensibly clear: Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), a Egyptian living in Chicago on a green-card, disappears on his flight home from Africa through DC. Though he boarded the plane, there is no record of him ever arriving. Unfortunately for him, a suicide bomber killed dozens of people in the unnamed middle-eastern country that is the locale for the heart of the movie. And since an American intelligence officer was killed, the CIA wants to do whatever it can to find the culprits. Anwar's apparent non-arrival in Washington DC is slightly subsequent to this tragedy. Anwar's very pregnant wife Isabella Fields El-Ibrahimi (Reese Witherspoon), sadly waits for a husband that will never show, since he has been legally kidnapped by US officials and sent to the country where the bombing took place.

With Anwar in custody, Abasi Fawal (Yigal Naor) is the principal interrogater/torturer. To protect America's interests, Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) a local CIA paper-pusher is assigned as the observer. This is outside of his activity, but the local "knuckledragger" is the CIA agent killed in the bombing. So, Freeman is asked to step up his game.

Now, along with this obvious story-line, there is a sub-plot with Fawal's daughter, who is in love with a terrorist-wannabe. Throw in Meryl Streep as CIA chief Corrine Whitman, who makes the call to take Anwar prisoner, Peter Sarsgaard as Alan Smith, the long-time friend of Isabella who works at a senator's office, and Alan Arkin as the senator, and you have the makings of a gripping, multi-threaded thriller, along the lines of Crash or Traffic. Unfortunately, the screenplay does not include much character development. These are all flat characters, with no real backstory. Even the acting is subdued, apart from Naor who plays Fawal with strength and conviction. As one of the leads, Jake Gyllenhaal seems miscast in his role. He appears unbelievable as a young CIA analyst asked to do a very dirty job. It is obvious what he will do, and if the audience can sense this, his superiors should too.

Though the story is fun to watch, it is clearly a vehicle for the political statement the director is trying to make: rendition, introduced in the Clinton administration, is being used inappropriately by the Bush regime. The story is so loaded to this end, that only one statement to the contrary stands out. Corrine Williams, when confronted by Alan Smith on this abuse of human rights, says "Honey, this is nasty business. There are upwards of 7,000 people in central London alive tonight, because of information that we elicited just this way. So maybe you can put your head on your pillow and feel proud for saving one man while 7,000 perish, but I got grandkids in London, so I'm glad I'm doing this job... and you're not." We torture one, and save 7000. Those are "good" statistics.

While Rendition raises the issue of ends justifying the means (7000 alive, one tortured maybe dead), it does not develop it fairly or thoughtfully. As Anwar is tortured, he finally breaks and gives his captors what they want: information. But how good is information obtained in this manner? How certain can we be of coerced information? And if the information is suspect, what possible justification can there be for such acts? Just as the data that caused him to be taken in the first place is questionable at best, so is this confession. And it could, likely will, lead to other arrests and torture.

Ethically, the Bible says all men have dignity being created in the image of God. This implies that they should not be tortured. But in war, and terrorism is a form of war, biblical ethics become more difficult. (This is clear when we have committed Christians both ardently supporting and opposing war.) Intended to leave the audience morally disgusted with the use of extraordinary rendition, Rendition left this critic wondering how such a potentially good movie could end so suddenly with a Hollywood happy ending. And such an ending, instead of bringing satisfaction to the viewing, cheapens the overall experience. In this life, good guys don't always end victorious, and bad guys don't always get their comeuppance.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

No comments:

Post a Comment