Back during my schooldays, we had a teacher (a monk of the Christian Brothers of Edmund Rice, not the most liberal organisation in history) called Brother Beddoe. This person would only occasionally teach our class, but was chiefly memorable for the fact that he would spend a good half of it inveighing against the (then) Soviet Union. Apparently, the people of the USSR had “no rights at all” and, among other things without number, were tortured routinely in secret prisons to extract confessions from them.
I rather wonder what Brother Beddoe is doing today. I hope he’s alive and well, and that he keeps up with current affairs. I also hope he’s grown a sense of irony since I last saw him over twenty-five years ago.
If he’s still around, I’d strongly recommend Brother Beddoe do a few things. Like, watch a certain movie.
Y’know, I don’t like Hollywood much. I could say that it’s at least, overall, better than Bollywood, but that would be condemning with faint praise indeed. I much prefer European or Iranian cinema. But there are times, rare and precious, when Hollywood doesn’t drop the ball.
You’ve heard the word rendition, I suppose? The full form of the term is extraordinary rendition, and referred to the practice, started by that great liberal Kill Blinton (who destroyed more than one country in order to save its people), of outsourcing torture. Suspected “terrorists” were sent via planes (which landed and refuelled in other great and liberal European nations) to Arab countries where they were tortured professionally to squeeze out confessions. Whether those confessions were useful or even real didn’t matter – the programme needed confessions, and, of course, got them. And the practice soon stopped being "extraordinary" and became quite routine during Bush's Global War Of Terror.
This is one such story.
Anwar el-Ibrahimi is an Egyptian chemical engineer, who lives in Chicago with his heavily pregnant wife, Isabella, his son and mother. He’s lived in the US since the age of fourteen, has a green card, and travels abroad once in a while on conferences.
Meanwhile, somewhere in an unnamed generic North African country, a suicide bomber blows himself up in a public square. Among the nineteen people killed is a newly arrived CIA agent, a US citizen. The bombing is claimed by a local Islamic fundamentalist terrorist group, El Hazam, and another CIA agent (Jake Gyllenhaal as “Douglas Freeman”) is ordered to lead the local investigation.
Anwar el-Ibrahimi has just landed after a trip to South Africa when he’s arrested, at Chicago airport before arriving at customs, and hustled into a CIA secret prison, while all records of his having flown at all are quietly deleted from the passenger list. His crime? Someone who may be a terrorist has, apparently, called his cell-phone number on several occasions. Of course, it may not be his phone (as when the phone was in his possession; as a character says, “these people” sell or give away their SIM cards, and one SIM card can often pass through the possession of many people in succession), and he denies knowing the man, but the CIA wants a confession. Someone must confess something, even if the act of extorting a confession by torture creates a hundred or a thousand enemies where there were none.
At the express order of CIA official Corinne Whitman (a superb performance by Meryl Streep – I love this woman’s portrayal of utterly vile people) el-Ibrahimi is shipped off to the same unnamed North African nation, where he’s stuffed into a tiny cell, stripped naked, waterboarded, and subjected to electric shocks to get him to tell all he knows about the terrorists he’s never heard of. Freeman is a mute spectator at these torture sessions, which are supervised by local secret police chief Abasi Fawal, who had been the target of the suicide bombing in the public square.
Fawal, meanwhile, isn’t a typical movie-monster. He’s a family man with a wife and two daughters, the elder of whom, Fatima, elopes with a young fellow-student called Khalid. Khalid is not someone whom the police chief is likely to approve of as a prospective son-in-law; still less, if he knew that the young man is a secret member of a radical Islamic fundamentalist group, and also someone whose brother Fawal himself had tortured to death in the prison.
On the other side of the planet, Anwar’s wife Isabella frantically tries to discover his whereabouts, finally asking for help from an old friend, senatorial aide Alan Smith. Although Anwar was erased from the passenger list at Chicago, proof exists that he had boarded the flight at Cape Town in South Africa, and his credit card statement proves that he had purchased items from the onboard duty-free shop. Smith approaches his senator, an alleged liberal, but is warned off both by the senator himself and Corinne Whitman, since defending an alleged “terrorist” is career suicide.
There are these separate stories moving side-by-side through the narrative, then: Anwar and his torturers; Fawal’s daughter Fatima and her boyfriend; and Isabella, frantically seeking information about her husband. The common element in them is one, the figure of Anwar, even though he isn’t even aware of the existence of most of the other protagonists.
In the way it juggles different narratives, this film can be compared to Babel. However, I’d call it infinitely superior to that film, where the only “common” element – if one could call it that – between the parallel stories was a rifle, and those who’ve seen that movie will probably agree that the Japan scenes were thrown in as an excuse for some of the most bafflingly gratuitous nudity ever filmed. Rendition is superior to Babel by just about any parameter one can think of, including the fact that it, too, has a time sequence shift which becomes clear only at the end. In Babel, that shift only serves to confuse the issue further; in Rendition, it serves to tie up loose ends and makes for a twist that I won’t reveal here.
There are various things that one takes away from Rendition, or should if one’s watched the film with any attention:
There’s the parallel between the thinking processes of the jihadist preacher who exhorts his congregation to give their lives for Islam, and not to fear the enemy’s bullets because all they can do is “set (their) soul free”, and the secret police chief who describes the act of torturing prisoners to extract confessions as his “sacred duty.” There’s the idiocy of torturing confessions which are completely false, because, as Shakespeare said five hundred years ago,
I fear you speak upon the rack
Where men enforced do speak anything.
There’s the pervasive fear in Washington of going against the official stance on national security, where the Constitution can be dumped along with one’s personal convictions just to avoid being called a “lover of Osama bin Laden.” And there’s the unnamed North African nation, where legitimate protestors are baton-whipped, arrested and tortured by police, so there’s no way out but violence if one wants change. Stupidity, cowardice and expediency, mixed into the most lethal cocktail one can think of.
Rendition wears its liberal credentials on its sleeve and would have pissed off a lot of people of the right-wing persuasion, because of the uncomfortable questions it asks. That these questions are “uncomfortable” are themselves testimony of their validity; they can’t be easily answered. Are 999 fake confessions, 999 tortured innocents, justified if by chance the 1000th just might be useful in preventing a terror attack which might, in the words of Corinne Whitman, have killed “7000 people” in London? And who is to say that it was useful, the people who have a vested interest in keeping the torture programme in existence? Who shall guard the guardians?
The best acting comes from Omar Metwally as Anwar el-Ibrahimi; not because of what he says or does, but how he depicts the character’s steady physical and mental deterioration throughout the film, turning from a cool and composed professional in the first scenes to a drivelling wreck towards the end. As his wife, Isabella, Reese Witherspoon is competent and thankfully doesn’t go the wrist-wringing route. Zineb Oukatch is good as Fatima Fawal, and as I said, Meryl Streep is superb in the few scenes she has. The cinematography is good and the North African settings look authentic.
I’m giving this film four and a half stars out of a possible five. I’m deducting half a star entirely because of the denouement of one of the narrative plots in the last fifteen minutes, which depends on a CIA agent suddenly developing a conscience and deciding to do the “right” thing even at the cost of his career – an intensely unlikely happening however you look at it. It’s as though the filmmakers suddenly realised that after one hour and forty five minutes of treating all Americans except Isabella el-Ibrahimi as villains, they needed to show that at least one of the others was someone with a conscience and the spine to do as it dictated.
In the final analysis, though, that’s quibbling. The film’s excellent.
Like Roger Ebert, who gave it four stars out of four, I strongly recommend it.