Torture: What Is It Good For?
Torture, as depicted by popular media in movies like Rendition or TV shows like 24 never seems to work. For example, in 24, the good guys often inject a pain-inducing serum into their subjects to make them talk, but invariably either the subjects are too strong-willed to ever betray their colleagues or themselves, or they're innocent and can therefore confess nothing.
This would seem to be the entire point of Rendition, wherein an Egyptian-born American immigrant, Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), is detained after he makes a connecting stop from South Africa to Washington D.C. Apparently, a cell phone number associated with a terrorist has been linked to El-Ibrahimi's cell phone, and the terrorist has just claimed resposibility for a North African suicide-bombing that also happens to have killed an American agent. When El-Ibrahimi says he doesn't know what's going on, the CIA, in a government-sanctioned act known as "extraordinary rendition," ships him off to the site of the bombings for interrogation by torture.
Now we're not quite sure at this part if he's really guilty or innocent, but frankly the point, as explained above, works both ways. The more likely scenario here is that he's innocent, given that his wife Isabella is played by Reese Witherspoon, and the movie spends a lot of time following her as she desperately looks for an answer to why her husband has suddenly disappeared. In any case, when Anwar says nothing, they just torture him some more, which brings up obvious concerns to anyone with a conscience, as represented in this case by Jake Gyllenhaal's character, Douglas Freeman, a relatively green CIA agent who oversees the operation.
The difficulty with movies even as well-meaning as Rendition is that they inevitably preach to the choir. And if this movie left it at that, there might not be much to recommend, but a certain subplot involving the tradition-bound Moroccan head of the investigation (Igal Naor), his rebellious missing daughter (Zineb Oukach), and the young man she's run away to (Moa Khouas) expands both the story and the themes. It seems mainly to say that hardliner stances can lead to very personal consequences, thereby reinforcing the idea that such policies do more unexpected harm than any quantifiable good. It's also enacted in a unique way that may feel a bit like cheating, but the added dimension it brings allows us to find it acceptable.
Meanwhile, Freeman turns out to be the stronger audience surrogate than the worried-and-pregnant Isabella. This is because Gyllenhaal's character is the one blessed with actual development; also, he may have the power to change the course of action. Director Gavin Hood, in two movies, shows that he's interested in a person's ability to change, to gain a conscience. I found this concept less convincing in Tsotsi than here, where Freeman is depicted as someone who just got his feet wet. Just the same, he turns out to be the guy the viewers may want to root for, as he becomes the symbol of the idealism, humanity, and clear-thinking we may still have left.
Thus, Rendition does its job, keeping the action involving, but in an increasing pool of U.S.-policy-and-the-Middle-East movies, it also feels like one of the crowd. It might be considered a more straightforward cousin of Syriana, employing much of the same methods such as multiple story threads, realistic locations, and serious-to-tragic tone. These movies keep our current conditions in the consciousness, but their relative homogeny dulls their potential to truly illuminate.
(Released by New Line Cinema and rated "R" for torture, violence and language.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.