October 22, 2007

Torture Is Such An Ugly Word

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Less than two months after the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, President Bush delivered a speech in which he announced to the world, “you’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.” This insistence on a neat dichotomy between good and evil has been a defining characteristic of our international politics ever since. This dilemma is the central problem of Gavin Hood’s Rendition, a thriller about the moral complexity of the War on Terror.

Exploring issues of duty, family and humanity through interrelated storylines, the film offers a troubling, if somewhat typical, view of the dominant struggle of our time

The most obvious duality in Rendition, the one in which the entire film is framed, is the contrast between America and the Middle East. The first scene in the U.S. is one lifted from Pleasantville: on a gorgeous autumn day a pregnant Reese Witherspoon, playing Isabella El-Ibrahimi, kicks a soccer ball with her young son on a large and leaf-strewn front yard. The film’s America is filled with whites and vibrant, often glaring, colors—an overabundance of luxury and comfort that bores with its brightness. Cut to Egypt, where Isabella’s husband, Anwar, has been taken by American agents after being kidnapped coming home from a business trip under suspicion of aiding terrorists. Donkey carts and lots of yellow. The visual texture here is richer and more realistic, a touch that reveals both more beauty and more misery. And in the midst of it is Jake Gyllenhaal. He plays Douglas Freeman (note the last name), a CIA analyst who narrowly escapes a suicide bombing and is then assigned to investigate it — beginning with observing the torture of El-Ibrahimi. The plot from here runs on several levels, and is clearly an attempt to imitate other recent thrillers such as Syriana. Isabella tries desperately to learn what has happened to her husband by appealing to a friend with Washington connections. Gyllenhaal watches as Fawal, an Egyptian government man, tortures El-Ibrahimi. Fawal searches for his daughter, who is in love with a young man flirting with extremism. Each story deals with the horror and attraction of violence, and centers around the competing demands of two ideas. Isabella faces the indifference of the United States government to individual suffering, and questions about being right versus being secure abound. Freeman is forced to weigh the demands of duty and of his conscience, and we have the problem of the individual and the universal. Fawal loses a grip on his worldview as his family becomes involved with the people he tortures, and thus the issue of the personal and the professional.

It is all riveting, emotionally complex and very predictable. Rendition is by no means a bad movie —indeed, it is recommended viewing for anyone interested in seeing another take on the War on Terror. And it’s a good sign that Hollywood is willing to so quickly take on a hot issue like extraordinary rendition — a practice whereby foreign nationals have been flown out of America to countries where due process and torture bans have no meaning. But this film’s problem lies in the fact that it relies too much on its subject matter to do the work. New Line Cinema knew that a thriller about a controversial political issue, with a few stars thrown in, would basically be worth watching on just those credentials. The audience deserves more, however. The film is nearly bereft of suspense for most of the way through, which is surprising and disappointing given the opportunities of the plot structure.

The situations are emotionally loaded, but the viewers are forced to do almost all the imagining, as too little time is devoted to reflection and letting the horror and hypocrisy sink in. And there are too many clichés of the thriller genre, such as the walk down the Mall in Washington to divulge government secrets.
But, given all this, Rendition is supposed to be a shocking movie, and it has its many moments. One of the most disturbing comes near the very beginning, when El-Ibrahimi is abducted at the Washington airport. His captors wear ski masks and read no rights — they seem to belong more to some Latin American dictatorship of the eighties than to our own intelligence forces. And there are of course the scenes of torture, somehow more shocking because the victim is screaming with an American accent while an agent of the American government looks on.

Indeed, the most intriguing parts of this film involve this dramatization of the duplicity of our government. Here again, the movies relies on external factors for the effectiveness of its drama, but it works — reading about covert government programs is one thing, but seeing them played out on the big screen is quite another, and worth it. The most famous lines from the movie will surely be the disturbing exchange between Freeman and his boss stateside, Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep). “This is my first torture,” Freeman says plainly. The cold reply: “The United States does not torture.”