Review: “Rendition”

After just two films, it’s safe to say Gavin Hood can be called a bleeding-heart director. He probably wouldn’t mind the title. After watching Tsotsi and Rendition, this latest Middle East entry, you get the impression that he would wear that description next to his heart on his sleeve. This South African would like nothing more, I suspect, than to become the go-to liberal conscious of Hollywood, and you should expect more projects of this nature.

Sporadically effective but thickly melodramatic, Rendition is a political spotlight film intended to attract the attention of the public to a controversial political issue. The one under this microscope is the “Extraordinary Rendition” program, which allows the government to transport some terrorism suspects captured by American authorities to secret detention facilities in other countries, thereby circumventing American law. To grab said attention, it assembles a cast of clean-cut stars (Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep, Alan Arkin) to seduce a mainstream audience to a movie with punishing images of torture. Good luck with that.

A too-light Witherspoon plays the Chicago wife of an Egyptian-born engineer (Omar Metwally), who is snagged at an airport after a bombing in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. The CIA has found phone calls from the suspected bombing mastermind to his cell phone number. She spends the rest of the film pressing against a stone wall to find the location of her husband. Under the Rendition program, a humourless CIA officer (Meryl Streep) sends him to an overseas torture chamber. There, a young CIA analyst (Gyllenhaal) witnesses the violent interrogation of the suspect, a task he finds harder and harder to stomach.

I’m no homeland security expert or Amnesty International activist, but I find this specific scenario hard to believe. Not because of blind trust in government. Rather, if the average moviegoer can foresee the impending blowback, as most will, I have a hard time believing hardened, risk-averse Washington operators wouldn’t. Likewise, the emotional landscape is too dumbed down and shriek-laden to fully succeed. And though he seems good at grasping issues, Hood has yet to show the capacity or willingness to completely think them through.

On the other end, Gyllenhaal is better than expected, the film has a well-played twist toward the end, and its torture scenes, taking place in a dank basement, are appropriately grueling and effectively communicate the point. It certainly isn’t a crowd-pleaser, but it has its moments.