Rendition is a powerful film that examines the effects of fear and hatred in a post-9/11 world. Similar conceptually to Babel and Crash, it follows a group of people whose lives intersect in devastating ways after a bomb goes off in the village square of an unnamed African city.
It is immediately engaging when we witness Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), an Egyptian-American bio-chemist, nabbed by government agents in an airport. During a terrifyingly real ordeal, Anwar is shuttled to an undisclosed country with a heavy bag over his head, stripped, handcuffed, tortured and kept in a hole. The CIA has (weak) evidence that Anwar has been in contact with the leader of a terrorist group that is claiming responsibility for the bombing. The group’s bombs have become more advanced since Anwar’s alleged contact with them, and it is assumed he used his expertise to aid them. Metwally’s performance has a huge emotional impact, and the tension of whether or not he’ll get back to his pregnant wife (Reese Witherspoon) is intense. Metwally is a fine actor; the look on his face when he parts with agent Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a perfect mix of disgust and gratitude.
The cast is excellent, with veterans like Meryl Streep and Alan Arkin. But their roles as hard-hearted government officials are a little dry. Newcomers Moa Khouas and Zineb Oukach give standout performances, as Oukach is seduced by boyfriend Khouas into joining a terrorist group. Their tragic love story also involves a timeline twist.
The film does itself a disservice with a somewhat contrived idea of keeping the characters generic and stereotypical. For example, Jake Gyllenhaal is a conflicted CIA agent who joined the agency immediately after 9/11. We are never given a particular reason, like if he lost a loved one. He stands for all of the Americans who are still struggling to understand their moral stance in this new reality. The effect disallows much needed character development. There are so many stories and so much technical information to be conveyed that the film does feel like it’s missing something.
Other characters seem to have muted emotion. Witherspoon maintains a very calm, doe-eyed demeanour throughout most of the film. For a character whose husband has been detained by shady people who are doing God-knows-what to him, the portrayal didn’t settle right. While Streep’s cold and unsympathetic CIA executive does provide the little sarcastic comedy that can be found in the film, there is no moment of humanity to round out the character, nor does she receive any gratifying come-uppance. This may have been intentional, however. Peter Saarsgaard’s character is extremely disappointing when he makes a quick switch from being a champion for the El-Ibrahimi family to a coward. And Gyllenhaal’s lover is a completely unnecessary element to the story.
The film is realistic in the way that it ends the story somewhat unsatisfactorily. It is not wrapped up in a pretty little bundle. Just like in real life, the corruption and devastation are nowhere near resolved.
Rendition should be applauded for its intentions. It vehemently reprimands the government for its monstrous activities, and illustrates how sick it is that so much power and political immunity is given to ordinary people with titles. And in violent conflicts, no side comes out clean.