2007 is the year that Hollywood began taking on Iraq and the “war on terror” in earnest, with three “topical” films now coming in the span of two months, and more on the way. This has to be a good thing: I’m skeptical of any movie having the capacity to alter the political discourse, or even really change people’s minds, but surely they can peel back layers and reveal emotional depths behind the headlines. Though mainstream moviegoers wholeheartedly rejected United 93, the film did more than any article or news report ever could to bring me closer to the greatest tragedy of our time.
But while Hollywood tearing into politics can be relevant, devastating, even important, it can also become an echo chamber, with the same liberals repeating the same familiar talking points. Variety’s Todd McCarthy has gone on record saying that he doesn’t think he has anything to learn from Hollywood’s takes on Iraq, and that makes a measure of sense: as Mr. Burns told Smithers after the latter opined that “women and seamen don’t mix,” “yes, we all know what you think.” For punditry, I can go to news reports and magazine articles.
That brings us to Gavin Hood’s Rendition, an angry, troublesome new film that is immensely frustrating in the way it combines painful insight with the worst in lazy political parroting. There’s a movie in here that we need, and a movie that we very much do not; a heartbreaking window into the souls of the people responsible for the outsourced “interrogations” that have blackened our nation’s name, fighting against what amounts to a generic filmed debate about the pros and cons of torturing terror suspects for information they may or may not have.
Though I suspected it might be otherwise, the latter is no more bearable when the talking points (which have by now become clichés) emerge from the mouths of sensationally talented actors. One scene — meant to be a blistering, tense confrontation — pits Peter Sarsgaard, playing an idealistic legislative aide determined to help an old classmate (Reese Witherspoon) get to the bottom of what happened to her middle-eastern husband, against Meryl Streep as a torture-happy CIA chief; you can feel their conviction and comprehend, at least in the abstract, their intelligence. But all they’re doing is repeating the arguments you’ll hear in any undergraduate political science class — hell, you can hear them in high school social studies. It’s all fun and games until you get the wrong guy, he says. I’m glad you’re not the one making these decisions, she shoots back before sneering and excusing herself from the conversation. Other characters have similar exchanges — the green CIA analyst (Jake Gyllenhaal) unexpectedly put in charge of beating information out of the clearly innocent Anwar El-Ibrahimi (whose name, in a nice touch, is consistently mispronounced as either “El-Ibrahim” or just “Ibrahim”) later has a crisis of conscience and runs through the requisite anti-torture points once again.
The presence of Witherspoon’s Isabella El-Ibrahimi doesn’t really move the ball forward either; indeed, I’m not sure why she’s part of this story, though of course I’m not cynical enough to suspect the handiwork of someone who felt that this studio production needed an affluent, white, American protagonist. There is nothing new or enlightening in her perfectly understandable outrage and grief, and there’s not enough to the character for her to be compelling on her own. It seems like cheating to rig a hypothetical wherein the innocent husband of a beautiful American woman is abducted and tortured and then graphically insist that this causes the beautiful American woman pain. Well, yeah.
Gyllenhaal’s storyline, verbose digressions notwithstanding, saves the film. It’s so vital — we know these renditions happen, that people are tortured, that somebody has to be there in the trenches doing it, presumably under the impression that on some level it’s for the best. Who are these people? How do they cope? This is how movies can be useful — by putting us in the heads of the people behind the big issues; by imagining the stories Time Magazine might not be able to get. The torturer’s story is by far the most interesting thing in Rendition; watching the debate play out behind Gyllenhaal’s eyes is immeasurably more riveting than watching him, or Sarsgaard, or Streep vocalize the issues. It’s something I haven’t seen before.
The movie is slick and tense, though the incessant cross-cutting halts the momentum, particularly toward the end. There’s a plot twist that some have condemned as pointless, and its total lack of substance indeed makes it suspect, but its visceral effect is hard to deny. Rendition is a good film that’s at its best when it’s not talking so much. I’m eager to see filmmakers tackle the terrible issues of the day, but they should play to the medium’s strengths. Movies tell stories.