When we commit acts of terror in the name of fighting terrorism, have we in fact become as bad as the bad guys we're supposed to be fighting? That's the question director Gavin Hood addresses in Rendition, which tackles the controversial practice of "extraordinary rendition," whereby suspected terrorists can be whisked off to other countries where "enhanced interrogation techniques" (electrocution, beating, and the ever-popular simulated drowning) are considered acceptable, so as to glean information from the suspected terrorist that might end up thwarting plots and saving countless lives.
The basic premise of Rendition: Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) is an Egyptian citizen with a green card who's been living and working in the United States since he was 14 years old. He has a lovely American wife, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon), a cute little six-year-old kid, and a baby on the way. He coaches his son's soccer team. He's a chemical engineer with a $200K salary and a nice house in the suburbs of Chicago. He could be you or me or someone we know. And one day, on his way home from a business trip to South Africa, Anwar is taken aside by security at the airport and secreted away for questioning about his alleged involvement with a terrorist whose cell phone number has been traced making phone calls to Anwar's cell phone. How does Anwar explain this? Unfortunately for him, he can't.
Corinne Whitman (Meryl Streep) a powerful woman who is in charge of national security (picture kind of a femme version of Dick Cheney mixed in with just a touch of Devil Wears Prada), orders her underling, Lee Mayer (JK Simmons) to put Anwar on a plane and take him out of the country; before you can say "due process," Anwar is naked in a North African prison, learning firsthand exactly what "advanced interrogation" feels like. CIA analyst Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds himself unwittingly promoted to the role of "observer" of the torture when Dixon, his CIA co-worker who normally gets to sit in on the torture action, gets taken out by shrapnel in a suicide bombing.
Freeman, who doesn't really have the stomach for watching a fellow human being relentlessly tortured to extract what may be questionably reliable information, quickly comes to doubt both the morality and effectiveness of what's being done to Anwar, but when he raises his concerns to Whitman, she icily tells him with no irony whatsoever that our government does not "do torture."
Meanwhile, Isabella is trying desperately to get answers about where her husband is. The government has deleted the record of him ever being on the plane to Washington, DC at all (scary, isn't it, how they can just make a person disappear like that?). Except ... oops ... someone forgot that Anwar had credit cards, and he used them while on the plane to make a duty-free purchase. Isabella takes this information to her ex-boyfriend, Alan (Peter Sarsgaard), who works for a powerful Senator . When he sees the evidence that Anwar was in fact on the plane, he steps in to help, trying to convince the Senator (Alan Arkin, in a solid turn) that this is the case with which to challenge the policy of extraordinary rendition in the press. This means taking on the powerful Whitman, though, and the Senator isn't about to put his career and his own power on the line without a watertight case against the rendition policy.
There's also a secondary plot concerning Fatima (Zineb Oukach) the daughter of Abasi (Yigal Naor), the chief intelligence officer in North Africa. Abasi was the target of the bombing that killed Dixon and 18 other people (mostly women and children), setting this whole story in motion. Fatima, whose father has already chosen a husband for her, has a secret relationship with fellow student Khalid (Moa Kouas). This subplot at first seems mostly irrelevant and then, through some clever plottiness, all the pieces fall into place. I can't really get into much more of a discussion about that without giving too much away. The way in which it fits is pretty skillfully constructed, although there is some convoluted story structure that feels a bit "Babel" toward the end.
If you're making a film about rendition, there are pretty much only two ways to approach it. Either you take the "moral outrage" angle, and build your story around making the audience feel tense and enraged about a perceived injustice (in which case it needs to be abundantly clear that the suspected terrorist is, in fact, innocent), or you take the "moral ambiguity" route, and look at it from the more oblique philosophical question of the rightness or wrongness of rendition as a policy overall. The latter angle posits the question of whether it even matters if Anwar is innocent or guilty; even if he is a terrorist, does that knowledge justify his torture and imprisonment without due process? Is security of the whole ever worth sacrificing the rights of the individual?
It's a skillfully executed philosophical exercise, and certainly relevant in light of our government's current policies, but is it intended to actually affect any kind of political or social change? It's a ballsy political issue to take on in a mainstream Hollywood film, but Rendition is a drama, not a documentary, and as such is really more there to entertain than to inform. And it does entertain; Witherspoon puts in a solid performance as Anwar's distraught, heavily pregnant wife, and Hood and writer Kelley Sane are also gutsy enough to give Isabella a realistic moment of asking herself whether there could possibly be something she doesn't know about her husband (thankfully they don't make this the focus of the film or we'd be watching a melodramatic Lifetime movie).
The real question is, though, whether American audiences will care about yet another film about terrorism, and if they even see the relevance to their own lives. We've become so benumbed by this "war on terror," by the steady slate of war related films that have come out over the past couple years, that it remains to be seen if the presence of big-name stars in Rendition will be enough to draw people to see it. The story is compelling, the execution and acting are solid, but if it doesn't draw the crowds, will anyone care?
For another take on Rendition, see James Rocchi's review of the film from the Toronto International Film Festival.