the gripping new movie by award-winning South African director
Gavin Hood, is suffering the fate of many good political films
-- damned by faint praise.
The San Francisco Chronicle gives the film "polite
applause." The Los Angeles Times calls Rendition "a
pat and generic, if serviceable, political thriller." The
New York Times calls the movie "clumsy," an odd word
from the nation's newspaper of record, which helped sell us
the war in Iraq, and shepherds along every liberty-killing move
of the post-9/11 regime.
The Voice of America is distributing a review
that claims that Rendition "is drowning in the blank stares
of a hapless CIA agent [Jake Gyllenhaal] and the whimpers of
a helpless soccer mom [Reese Witherspoon]." You did know
that the Voice of America does movie reviews, didn't you?
Ebert and Roeper, those two zany guys, call Rendition
"very mediocre" and -- this is really the point --
ultimately damaged by its "liberal fervor." They actually
complain that the film industry is producing movies critical
of the "war on terror" in the middle of the war, rather
than wait until years later, like all those hard-hitting, but
very late, Vietnam war movies. The political center has moved
so far to the right these days that it is "liberal fervor"
to question torture.
Ignore this disinformation campaign, and go see
Rendition. Hood has created a solid, moving film that dramatically
portrays the neo-fascist terror at the heart of our degenerating
political system. Hood's last movie, Tsotsi, won an Oscar last
year for Best Foreign Language Film. Hood deserves more awards
for Rendition. But even though the film looks and feels like
a Hollywood production, the movers and shakers in the southland
are finding it too hot to handle.
Rendition is the story of an Egyptian-American,
Anwar El-Ibrahimi, grabbed by the CIA when he gets off a plane
in Washington DC, after a flight from South Africa. He is interrogated
by a menacing CIA agent, and then secretly shipped off to a
torture chamber in an unnamed North African country. What follows
are not scenes for young kids or those with squeamish stomachs.
"Harsh interrogation techniques," including a graphic
water-boarding scene, have never been more real on screen. El-Ibrahimi
is played by Omar Metwally.
The existence of just such CIA "ghost detainees"
and "black sites" is now well-documented. Rendition,
the movie, is fiction, but rendition, part and parcel of US
national security policy, is not. Rendition, the policy, was
first promulgated by none other than Bill Clinton, and then
seized upon by George Bush with a vengeance. No wonder this
movie makes apologists for the American empire -- both liberal
and conservative -- uncomfortable.
Rendition is a policy supposedly reserved for
non-citizens (at least to our knowledge). Yet the parallel with
one citizen-American -- Jose Padilla -- is evident, although
it has eluded most reviewers. Both the fictional El-Ibrahimi
and the real-life Padilla, a US citizen of Puerto-Rican descent,
were grabbed as they got off a plane, in Padilla's case in Chicago,
after a flight from Pakistan. Like El-Ibrahimi, Padilla was
held incommunicado, and tortured. These government-perpetrated
crimes were later winked at by the Supreme Court in Rumsfeld
v. Padilla. After more legal shenanigans and a preposterous
show trial, Padilla is now in a federal prison, awaiting a probable
Rendition is also the story of El-Ibrahimi's
blonde American wife, played by Witherspoon, who desperately
attempts to find her disappeared husband. But nobody, in the
end, will help her, not even her former boyfriend who works
for a powerful US Senator.
There is more than a hint of racism when the
boyfriend, played by Peter Sarsgaard, asks her how well she
really knows her Egyptian-born husband. Watching the Senator,
played to a tee by Alan Arkin, dress down Sarsgaard, the congressional
aide, for even suggesting that he go out on a limb to help Witherspoon,
is a dramatic lesson in the failure of our supposed democracy
to uphold even the most basic of human rights.
At this very moment, the Democrats in the Senate
are struggling with what is left of their consciences over the
confirmation of Bush's latest appointee for Attorney General,
a judge named Michael Mukasey, who isn't even willing to admit
that water-boarding is torture. As a judge, Mukasey also ruled
that the government had the right to imprison Padilla as an
"enemy combatant" without charging him with a crime.
Rendition is also the story of a CIA agent, played
by Gyllenhaal, thrown by circumstances into his "first
torture," who slowly rebels against his role. His name
in the movie is Douglas Freeman, in case anyone misses the point.
Gyllenhaal, of recent Zodiac fame, does the part well.
Gyllenhaal's nemisis is the incomparable Meryl
Streep, playing a CIA functionary in charge of torture. Streep
plays the part much like the Adolf Eichmann whom Hannah Arendt
described in her classic "Eichman in Jerusalem: A Report
on the Banality of Evil" -- a bureaucratic paper-pusher,
far removed from the actual scene of the crimes she is organizing.
While Streep is a study in unrepentant inhumanity, Gyllenhaal
is all too human, suffers through some very believable angst,
and ends up a hero.
could argue that only in Hollywood would a CIA agent turn because
of the immorality of his job. But, just this week, the New York
Times carried a story about Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Diaz, a Navy lawyer
with an up-and-coming career, described as "a stellar leader
of unquestionable integrity" by his commanding officer,
who volunteered for duty at GuantÃ¡namo. Once at
the island prison, Diaz also saw the immorality of his job.
In an act of rebellion, he created a list of all the detainees
at GuantÃ¡namo, and sent it off to the progressive
lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). The lawyers
at CCR turned the list over to the Justice Department. For his
courageous act, instead of the medal Diaz deserves, he has been
awarded six months in a military brig.
The last time we see CIA agent Freeman, we know
that he faces a future just as bleak, maybe worse, than Diaz.
As the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished, especially
not in the 21st-century American world. But Freeman, the fictional
CIA agent, and Diaz, the real military lawyer, are following
in the footsteps of other real heroes -- including former CIA
agent Phillip Agee and former FBI agent M. Wesley Swearingen,
who both chose to testify to the world about the crimes that
they saw committed.
Finally, and most importantly, Rendition is the
story of the people of North Africa, really of all people who
are victims of the heavy hand of US
imperial power. While the movie doesn't have the political sophistication
of some recent films, such as Syriana, it poignantly lays bare
the human cost of enforcing US imperial policy, for both the
occupied and the occupiers, even for the torturers themselves.
Rendition brings it all together in a breathtaking
scene near the end of the movie, a twist that you won't expect.
Some reviewers have criticized the final scenes as confusing,
and it does take some thinking to understand. But that is the
point of this movie -- to make you think. That is what all the
luke-warm and negative reviewers don't want to do, and exactly
what the organizers of this disinformation campaign don't want
you to do.
This review was based on an article published
Chron, October 26, 2007
Marc Norton is a bellman at a small
hotel in downtown San Francisco. His Website is marcnorton.us.
here to contact Mr. Norton.