Directed by Gavin Hood. USA. 2007.

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Since 2001 at least one hundred people have been subject to what is euphemistically known as “extraordinary rendition”, a process begun under the Clinton Administration that legitimizes the torture of individuals suspected of aiding terrorists. Detainees are kidnapped and held incommunicado at U.S. airports, then flown to overseas countries such as Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Afghanistan, and other international detention centers where they are held indefinitely, interrogated, and tortured in secrecy with the complicity and often direct participation of U.S. intelligence operatives in violation of international law and U.S. laws banning torture. 

Director Gavin Hood and screenwriter Kelley Sane have dramatized these assaults on due process in Rendition, a timely and involving film with an all-star cast that explores the dark side of the war on terrorism. Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), an Egyptian-born resident of the U.S., is seized by CIA operatives as he lands in Washington, D.C. after returning from a conference in South Africa. He is on his way to his home in Chicago to be with his young son and pregnant wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon). Questioned about connections to an Islamic terrorist, his answers do not satisfy his interrogators and he is “put on the plane” by Intelligence Officer Corrinne Whitman, played with an air of steely disdain by Meryl Streep. He is then taken to Egypt under the rendition program without any charges being laid against him or access to an attorney.  

Claiming that El-Ibrahimi’s cell phone records show that he received numerous calls from a known terrorist, El-Ibrahimi is shackled and blindfolded, his clothes removed and he is subject to beating, waterboarding, and electric shocks by Abasi Fawal (Igal Naor). The whole proceeding is witnessed by a young CIA operative Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) who was thrust into the position after the death of his senior in a suicide bombing. As the prisoner steadfastly maintains his innocence, the increasing brutality against a fellow American begins to weigh heavily on Freeman who, like the Stasi Officer in The Lives of Others, slowly begins to regain his humanity.  

Another story line follows the effort of the detainee’s wife to discover the whereabouts of her husband. She contacts an old friend Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard) who works for a U.S. Senator (Alan Arkin). Smith is sympathetic and interested in providing her with information but is blocked by the reality of the political consequences. In the third subplot, Abasi’s daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach) is romantically involved with a young Islamic militant named Khalid (Moa Khouas) who has joined a group of suicide bombers to avenge the death of his brother. All three sub-plots come together at the end but unfortunately without a strong emotional impact. 

Gavin Hood in Rendition has crafted a story that, like his extraordinary 2005 film Tsotsi, shows us the relevance of conscience in our lives and the possibility of transformation, this time even in a hardened CIA case officer. It has been attacked by critics for stacking the deck on the issue, showing the capture of an appealing young American with a pregnant wife and young son as an example of the unfairness of the program. Yet this case is not unique and is very reminiscent of the 2002 abduction of Canadian engineer Maher Arar who was seized at JFK airport and transferred to Syria where he endured ten months of torture because his name was mistakenly placed on a list of suspected terrorists.  

The film also takes a balanced approach, showing the intransigence of the Islamic underground and the Intelligence community, both willing to use violence to justify their political ends. Though Rendition does not leave us with much sense of outrage, it is a thought provoking film that raises relevant questions. Do the ends justify the means? Is it necessary to engage in despotic and inhuman methods in order to fight terrorism? How many terrorists have actually been discovered by the program? Rendition is flawed by a too-pat ending and a confusing timeline switch, yet it is a well made and important film about a subject that needs to be debated and Hood must be given credit for his courage in bringing this issue to our attention. 


Howard Schumann
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