Rendition Movie Review
Of all of the Middle Eastern-themed movies that were released in the second half of 2007, Rendition looked the least interesting to me. The movie looked glossy and stuffed with good-but-not-commanding actors for the sake of selling tickets. The film received so-so reviews, and even when it was released on DVD, I didn't drive to the video store at 9 a.m. to rent me a copy.
Thankfully, Rendition exceeds expectations. It's not incredible, but it is still a captivating, thought-provoking drama that raises some interesting issues while offering a fast-paced, exciting story. The movie, which stars Omar Metwally, Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard and Meryl Streep (nevermind about my "good-but-not-commanding" statement), is about the events that occur after a man is taken from an airport by the U.S. government and tortured for suspicion of conspiring with terrorists. The man's wife (Witherspoon), an American and mother of his child, isn't told where he is or what he's been charged with, and she recruits her friend (Sarsgaard) to look around. What unfolds is a delicate game of political maneuvering and tests of conscience as it becomes clearer and clearer that the United States government has overstepped its bounds.
Rendition's main goal is to dress the hypocrisy of U.S. policies as it relates to torture and terrorism investigations. The U.S. "doesn't torture" and has a sound justice system, but when it comes to non-citizens, even legal residents, everything is seemingly fair game. The U.S. can capture, hold and interrogate people without the presence of a lawyer, official charges or even evidence. Is this right? And if it's wrong, if the U.S. doesn't do these things, would it be jeopardizing America's safety? Rendition has a pretty clear answer to these questions, though it certainly forces you to think. There is no black-and-white answer, because in reality without secret interrogations and stuff like that, the country, and probably other countries, would be at more risk to terrorist attacks. The bigger question is, what cost is that safety worth? How many people who are held by the U.S. overseas, or in Guantanamo Bay, are innocent? Is the sacrifice of those innocent worth the "greater good?"
Beyond the political questions Rendition raises, the movie is a slick and effective thriller. From nearly the first minute, the movie keeps you on the edge of your seat as it shifts from terrorist attacks (albeit with pretty poor special effects) to kidnapping to political maneuvering to torture and so on and so forth.
Some of the subplots work better than ever, however. The torture scenes and the related sequences with Gyllenhaal and Metwally are, understandably, the most interesting. A subplot involving two young lovers in what can almost be described as a "Romeo and Juliet" setting is also quite intriguing, and has the biggest payoff at the end. However, the story involving Witherspoon's attempts to find out what happened to her husband is less captivating, not because it is the more politically oriented part of the movie but because it just doesn't work as well as writer Kelley Sane or director Gavin Hood intended. Witherspoon, ultimately, doesn't have much to do other than cry and scream, and she as an actress never really gets into the dirt and grime of the story. Pieces that spiral off from Witherspoon, such as a few interactions with Sarsgaard and especially Streep, are good, but still don't compare to the other storylines at work. One would have to wonder if Hood had gone for a more epic approach and tacked on an additional 20 minutes that he could have used to develop the political aspect of the film.
Nevertheless, there is a lot of stuff at work in Rendition, and Hood coordinates all of the storylines quite well. The movie never loses its pacing and is entertaining on all levels. I especially liked the previously mentioned subplot involving the young man and woman who are torn between romance and extremism; you don't really realize what is going on until the end, and then, when everything snaps into place, you get one of those "Ah ha!" moments. I was pretty surprised, and I like being surprised.
Rendition is a surprisingly good movie. It isn't flawless by any means, but it deserves better treatment than it has received.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.