Monday 16 February 2015

Movie review: Rendition (2007)

A stunning post 9/11 thriller, Rendition delves into the dark world of interrogation gone mad, rampant terrorism, and a Middle East in the death grip of failed policies at all levels.

Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) is a chemical engineer living with his wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) in Chicago. Originally from Egypt, Anwar has lived in the US for 20 years and holds a Green Card. Returning home from a business trip to South Africa, Anwar is intercepted on orders from the CIA's Corinne Whitman (Meryl Streep), questioned by agent Lee Mayers (J.K. Simmons) and shipped off to Egypt for further interrogation on an extraordinary rendition. There is no evidence that Anwar has committed any wrong doing; but according to the CIA his cell phone has been receiving calls from a number connected with known terrorist Rashid.

Meanwhile, in Egypt, a suicide bomber targets police chief Abasi Fawal (Yigal Naor) at a public square coffee shop, but he survives, as does CIA analyst Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) who happens to be in the area. The attack is claimed by Rashid's group. Abasi's daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach ) is missing from home, involved in a rebellious love affair with classmate Khalid (Moa Khouas). Abasi is placed in charge of torturing Anwar to extract information about his connections with Rashid, with Freeman observing the interrogation. Back in the US, a frantic and very pregnant Isabella connects with former classmate Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard), now an aid to Senator Hawkins (Alan Arkin), and they start to ask questions about Anwar's disappearance.

As directed by Gavin Hood from a Kelley Sane script, Rendition shines a light on some of the worst atrocities committed against innocent individuals by the United States government in the panicked years after September 11 2001. Although it remains unsaid (just as Egypt is only referred to as "North Africa"), Rendition is inspired by the real cases of Khalid El-Masri and Maher Arar. Both were innocent men separately captured for the flimsiest of reasons and transported to black sites in the Middle East, where they suffered through months of torture before being released.

Rendition is a complex, intellectual, and fearless film. From its opening scene of a devastating suicide bombing in a bustling square to the climax revealing a stunning compositional sleight of hand, it demands total engagement. A solid half of the film is in Arabic with sub-titles, and Hood insists on covering the intersecting events from all perspectives: the Arabs and the Americans; the torturer, the tortured and the observer; the anguished family members (of both Anwar and Abasi) and the cold bureaucrats; the civilians and the terrorists; events in Washington DC and the narrowest of Arab streets. The film is a miracle of careful assembly, lack of compromise and tight storytelling.

This is also an astoundingly effective character-driven thriller. For Anwar, Isabelle, Abasi, Douglas, Fatima and Khalid once the life-defining struggles start there is no let-up, and the film's two hours are packed with growing desperation as even powerful people come face to face with seemingly unstoppable events intent on colliding in the worst possible way.

While the film is a clear denunciation of extraordinary renditions, screenwriter Sane makes sure that the case for and against is articulated. The character of Corinne Whitman (an icy cold Meryl Streep) is provided with several opportunities to defend the practice in the name of guarding against terrorist atrocities, and the secrets of Anwar's cell phone are cleverly deployed to keep the unknowns unknown. Even the suicide bombers are provided with a backstory and a set of motivations.

Rendition loops in on itself in a breathtaking arc, ending with violence hitting home, brutality breeding brutality, the cycle of death continuing, widening, swallowing the innocent and the guilty. Many eyes for one eye, many teeth for one tooth, an exponential escalation of hell on earth.

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