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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


There’s been a lot in the news lately about whether or not the United States uses torture or other severe interrogation techniques when dealing with terror suspects. Of course, the official position is that the U.S. does not use torture. But there is something called an “extraordinary rendition” that sort of skirts the issue. Individuals with suspected terrorist ties are occasionally flown to another country, where a representative from that country induces them to talk, and if that means using some harsh tactics, so be it. This is more or less a backhanded way of extracting information while still being able to deny participation in a barbaric practice.

Just recently, German citizen Khaled el-Masri alleged that the CIA abducted him in Macedonia, flew him to a detention facility in Afghanistan where he was drugged and beaten, then dropped him in the Albanian woods. Does it horrify you even a little bit to think that this could occur? It certainly horrified the makers of Rendition, an uncompromising new film that deals with the subject.

Omar Metwally (Munich) plays Anwar El-Ibrahimi, an Egyptian-born chemical engineer who is detained by the CIA while on a flight from South Africa to the United States. They throw a mask over his face and take him to a Middle Eastern detention facility where a no-nonsense interrogation expert named Abasi (Igal Naor) repeatedly inquires about multiple phone calls made to his cell phone by a terrorist suspect. Anwar insists it’s a mistake; he doesn’t know the guy who was supposedly calling him, and he’d never do anything to help a terrorist. Abasi responds by employing increasingly heinous forms of torture, including electrocution and near-drowning.

Overseeing this process is Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), a CIA analyst who has suddenly, and perhaps unwillingly, been thrown into the job. Freeman is not entirely comfortable with what he witnesses; that discomfort grows the longer it goes on, but he also wants to do his job. Meanwhile, back home in the States, Anwar’s wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) frantically tries to figure out why her husband has gone missing. Records show that he boarded the flight in Capetown but never got off in America. Knowing that he couldn’t have disappeared mid-flight, she suspects something more sinister has happened. For help, she turns to an old friend named Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard), the assistant to a well-connected senator (Alan Arkin). It is Alan who explains to Isabella what an “extraordinary rendition” is. He tries to help her get more specific information from Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep), the head of U.S. intelligence.

There is another branch of the story involving Abasi’s daughter and her boyfriend, but the less you know about that in advance, the better. This subplot parallels the main plot about Anwar’s abduction and adds unexpected depth to it at the end.

Rendition is obviously not the stuff of a fun date night at the movies. I was reminded of last year’s Babel. Both are intelligent, provocative films that aren’t exactly models of accessibility. You have to work to get into their rhythm. I like this kind of thing; not everyone does. I think a movie dealing with something as grave as “extraordinary renditions” shouldn’t come equipped with easy answers or empty platitudes. Rendition shows you some things that may disturb you. It brings up issues that are both complex and uncomfortable. It addresses real problems without providing a ray of hope to make them go down easier. However, those qualities are the very things that make it such a vital and important moviegoing experience. Director Gavin Hood (the Oscar-winning foreign film Tsotsi) doesn’t shy away from the political intrigue, the moral issues, or the humanity of the characters, no matter which side of the coin they’re on. Hood bravely grabs our hands and pulls us into the middle of the morass.

I should probably add that the screenplay (by Kelley Sane) doesn’t really come down on party lines. Although there’s a line about how extraordinary renditions have increased since 9/11, the film explicitly states that the practice originated in the Clinton administration. Rendition isn’t about Red States or Blue States; instead, its point is that torture is a pointless exercise, as it rarely yields any substantive information. Inflict enough excruciating pain on someone and eventually he’ll tell you whatever you want to hear, just to make it stop. This incontrovertible fact makes the practice (no matter who’s executing it) essentially unreliable. This being the case, why would any government employ it as a means of investigation?

That powerful question is driven home by the performance of Jake Gyllenhaal, which is really interesting. He doesn’t say a whole lot, and most of his time is spent looking out the corners of his eyes. Freeman has been instructed to oversee the interrogation, yet he doesn’t particularly like what he sees. He tries to watch and not watch at the same time. Because Freeman squirms while being a party to the torture, so do we. Gyllenhaal turns in a masterful performance, conveying all the ambivalence his character feels with mere looks and gestures.

Witherspoon and Streep are excellent also, particularly in a scene where the concerned wife confronts the unsympathetic Intel head. Then there’s Peter Sarsgaard, who has quietly become one of our finest actors. His character wants to help Isabella, but has to make a painful choice in the midst of doing so. Sarsgaard not only projects an innate intelligence in every role he plays but also a moral fortitude. He excels playing characters who want to do the right thing.

I realize that not everyone will want to see this movie. Some people feel that if we stop even one terrorist, the cost of sacrificing some personal freedoms and liberties is worth it. Then again, people who believe that have probably never experienced what Khaled el-Masri did, or what Anwar El-Ibrahimi does in this film. For whatever kind of box office it does, Rendition is an important film. Art, by definition, is supposed to provoke, to spur emotions, to enlighten. On those counts, this movie scores a bull’s-eye.

( out of four)

Rendition is rated R for torture/violence and language. The running time is 2 hours and 2 minutes.

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