As it happens, Rendition was recently voted the audience favorite (best narrative feature) at the Mill Valley Film Festival. And yet, the movie hasn't exactly been embraced by critics. This is not unusual, and most times when there is a division between audience and critical opinion, I lean toward one side or the other. In this case, however, I can see both sides of the coin.
The film is either a suspenseful, mysterious drama, or it's a pithy, just barely skin-deep examination of a real-life issue that deserves a closer look than Rendition provides. The somber issue at the heart of the story (the U.S. condoning the seizure and torture of suspected terrorists without allowing them their normal legal rights) is either an important and thorny debate that people should know about no matter what, or it's something that is upsettingly trivialized when used like this, as shallow entertainment. The "twist" at the end is either a clever device that works well to make viewers gasp and feel smart, or it's a last-ditch attempt to make a not-great movie more interesting. To see more of what I mean,
The story follows the Egyptian-born Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), who has lived in the U.S. for 20 years, was educated in the U.S. and has a green card. Returning to the U.S. from a business trip to South Africa, Anwar is seized, questioned and ultimately flown to an unidentified country in Northern Africa, where he is brutally tortured for information. Anwar's cell phone is apparently linked to a known terrorist who is suspected in a recent suicide bombing that killed a CIA officer. The torture is overseen by both a young, green analyst Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) as well as a seasoned interrogator Abasi (Igal Naor).
Meanwhile, Anwar's very pregnant wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) is growing frantic because of her husband's disappearance and solicits the help of an old flame (Peter Sarsgaard) who works for a senator. He informs her that Anwar was taken in on account of "extraordinary rendition," a U.S. policy by which suspected terrorists can be sent to other countries and tortured without legal consequences. Meryl Streep plays the official who oversees such processes with a callous self-righteousness. Adding to this American political drama is a star-crossed love story between Abasi's daughter and her dangerous lover. All storylines ultimately intersect.
Interestingly, that there are two drastically different ways to view this movie is in keeping with the issue itself. Many folks justify rendition as a way to weed out the bad guys, send a message to their friends and crack down on the few to save the many. The idea is that it "protects America" at the expense of a few bad apples (and some innocent apples that fall through the cracks). Or, rendition is an unfair process, and if you can imagine one of your loved ones being ripped away from you for no apparent reason, tortured and stripped of his rights, it wouldn't seem like such a noble thing. Both sides think they're right. I understand why the filmmakers may have wanted to make this movie. At the same time, I have zero desire to ever see it again, and I'm not quite sure that I would recommend it as a great film. If you're curious, see the movie and decide for yourself.
Photos courtesy of New Line