When it comes to torture, context is all. Terrorism suspects tortured on Fox’s red-meat 24 have clear knowledge of missiles with nuclear warheads whizzing toward Los Angeles at this very second, and the high-priced civil-liberties lawyers who descend on the scene (within the hour, natch) and interrupt interrogations have been hired by thickly accented bad guys taking cunning advantage of our naïve Bill of Rights. Torture = Good. On the other hand, people tortured in lefty dramas like The Road to Guantánamo were arrested by mistake, and no impoverished civil-liberties lawyer can get anywhere near them for years: Torture = Bad. The clunky but stirring new melodrama Rendition is firmly on the torture-bad end of the spectrum. It centers on Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), a clean-cut Egypt-born U.S. resident married to a pregnant Reese Witherspoon (so how can he be evil?) who gets snatched at the airport by the CIA after a suicide-bomb blast in the Middle East kills one of its operatives. Following a relatively civil interrogation by Emil Skoda, the agency’s Director of Psychotic Indifference to Life (I didn’t get her full title, but she’s impersonated by Meryl Streep) orders Anwar shipped to a hellhole dungeon in a pointedly unnamed country for what you might call “the Full Dante.”
As the folks at New Line Cinema were quick to point out in an e-mail sent less than an hour after the decision, the Supreme Court last week refused to hear the “extraordinary rendition” case of Khaled el-Masri, a Lebanon-born German who accused the CIA of kidnapping him in 2003 and flying him to Afghanistan for interrogation and torture. Rendition is the same Kafkaesque nightmare done in Saturday-Afternoon-at-the-Movies style, with multiple crisscrossing plots, a cliff-hanger climax, and a strong current of hope—that an individual’s conscience can triumph over careerism and bureaucratic moral blindness. It’s pure Hollywood, but the humanism gets to you.
On separate continents, right and wrong duke it out in the heads of Jake Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard. Gyllenhaal plays Douglas Freeman (that name!), a green CIA analyst who helpfully describes himself as a “pencil pusher,” in contrast to a tough “knuckle dragger” colleague. But when the knuckle dragger gets blown up, it falls to the pencil pusher to watch big, bald Abasi Fawal (Igal Naor) brutally torture the naked, weeping Anwar. (How much CIA agents participate no one knows; I’m partial to Richard Pryor’s old bit about the role of U.S. military “advisers”: “I’d shoot the motherfucker, that’s my advice. Blam!”) Sarsgaard plays Alan Smith, Reese’s ex-boyfriend, who works for a powerful senator (Alan Arkin). Will he convince his boss to bring the case to the Congress and the American people? Will Freeman—whose eyes bulge as he witnesses Anwar’s beating, waterboarding, and electrocution—do more than drink himself into a stupor at the end of the day?
I’ve left out a sort of Romeo-and-Juliet subplot involving a devout Muslim student and the daughter of the baldy torturer: It’s unbelievably stilted but has, narratively speaking, a sting in its tail. There’s a lot of crosscutting, some of it peculiar. I was mystified by the leaping back and forth between Anwar’s torture and a madrassa in which students are assured of everlasting glory if they die in the course of killing infidels. It’s probably the filmmakers’ attempt at balance, a reminder of the violent fanaticism on all sides. But the jumping around is as deft as a hippo in a tutu, and the director, Gavin Hood (who made the galvanic morality play Tsotsi), never finds a rhythm.
The cast pulls you in, though. Metwally seems preternaturally guileless, and Witherspoon is very touching as she waddles around knocking on doors and fixing people with her ice-blue stare. You don’t dare laugh, even when she delivers lines as obvious as “All along the way, people give up, stop fighting. Please don’t be one of those people who just turns away.” The object of her plea, Sarsgaard, is remarkably believable as an ambitious political geek. Every word he utters seems calculated, the result of a quick cost-benefit analysis, and you never know which way he’ll go, because the thoughts themselves are so shrouded. Gyllenhaal is even more compelling. He’s a reticent actor—he doesn’t take many chances. But he builds that limitation into the character, and his immobility reeks of fear and self-disgust.
Two performances are mesmerizingly over the top. As the torturer, the Israel-born Igal Naor looks as if he could bite the heads off his prisoners, gargle, and sleep well, certain his cause is right. And Streep … her first appearance is startling: pinched face, slit eyes, sucking-a-lemon mouth. When she is challenged, her features turn to ice and her voice drops to a lethal monotone. But her southern accent is increasingly ridiculous, and the performance drifts over the line into camp. It’s a good liberal’s depiction of a reactionary conservative. You can almost hear the director yelling “Cut!” and the actress screaming, “Who is this bitch?!”