October 20, 2007

REVIEW: Rendition (D)

Background: Yet another installment in this season's "post-9/11 America/War in Iraq/War on Terror" series, Gavin Hood's Rendition stars Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko, Brokeback Mountain), Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line), Peter Sarsgaard (Kinsey), Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine), and Meryl Streep (The Devil Wears Prada). Hood, a South African who deservedly won an Oscar for writing and directing Best Foreign Feature Tsotsi in 2006, is currently working on the next X-Men sequel. Quite a Hollywoodized career arc if you ask me. Rendition was partially filmed in Morocco and Cape Town, the latter only because Hood probably wanted to stay home for as much of the production as possible, since there was no other reason for the opening scene in Rendition to be filmed there, let alone even set there.

Synopsis: Douglas Freeman (Gyllenhaal) is a rookie CIA analyst in "North Africa" who drinks too much and cares too little. When he has a near-miss with a suicide bombing, he is assigned to observe the interrogation of suspect Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally from Munich), an Egyptian-born American immigrant who is husband to "Izzie" (Witherspoon) and dad to Jeremy ("Jeremy El-Ibrahimi"?). El-Ibrahimi was detained upon arrival at Dulles Airport and, under orders of "extraordinary rendition" from CIA higher-up Corinne Whitman, (Streep) shipped off to a secret detention facility/torture dungeon in "North Africa." The local authorities are in charge of the interrogation, allowing Freeman only to look bored/uncomfortable during the torture sessions (and throughout the movie). In the meantime, super-pregnant Izzie desperately runs around D.C. trying to find information on what happened to her husband. Conveniently, her ex-boyfriend Alan (Sarsgaard) is a staffer for a U.S. Senator (Arkin), and eventually Izzie gets the opportunity to confront the ice-cold Whitman and scream at her for a couple of minutes. Back in "North Africa," Freeman is trying to expedite the interrogation, and his local counterpart is busy dealing with his teenage daughter Fatima, who is dating Khalid, an impressionable young "North African" who has extremist tendencies and is the doppelganger of actor James Franco. The plot speeds up here as all of the characters become desperate to finish the movie, and an odd time warp brings us back to the beginning, where we see the suicide bombing all over again. Some new details emerge and we're left with a predictable made-for-bad-TV ending.

I Loved:
+ Nothing.

I Liked:
+ Peter Sarsgaard's short screen time - his scene with Streep, second scene with Arkin, and second scene with Witherspoon.

I Disliked:
- That the identity of the country was deliberately ambiguous, and poorly hidden at that. We learn it's Tunis, Tunisia from Douglas Freeman's Interpol search.
- The gratuitous shots of Washington D.C. in the background of every scene. Izzie has the master hotel suite with the perfect view of the capitol? Doubt it.
- That it looked like it was filmed on a really bad set - dark, wet alleys; cliched torture dungeon; quaint city square in "North Africa," etc.
- The silly subplot about the "North African" interrogator's daughter Fatima - a total waste of time.
- The silly subplot about Douglas Freeman's lover/girlfriend - what was the point of that?

I Hated:
- The time warp - another unnecessary Hollywood gimmick that had no place here.
- The neatly wrapped, very predictable ending.
- Fatima's discovery of Khalid's delicately crafted and totally bizarre scrapbook.
- The stereotypical Islam = terrorism theme, capped off with the exaggerated locker-room speech about killing Americans. Anyone with a middle school (which I taught) knowledge of Islam should bristle at how it's misconstrued here, but we're so used to it we don't even notice anymore.

Writing - 5
Acting - 7
Production - 6
Emotional Impact - 6
Music - 5
Significance - 5

Total: 34/50= 68% = D

Last Word: Boy, this got worse
really quickly after I started thinking about it. Between painful cliches, a convoluted story and bad acting, I really can't understand how Rendition was so well received, aside from the fact that it's the first movie to deal with extraordinary rendition. But the subplots and unnecessary characters really get in the way of what could have been an extremely significant, moving film. I'm not sure what Gavin Hood's motivations are, but this kind of mainstream/fast-food filmmaking is not his strength. Stick with a character-driven story like Tsotsi, which had important lessons and a simple plot, without all of the stereotypical characters and bizarre scenes. Maybe it was the writer's fault, whose only writing credit prior to Rendition was a comedy musical about drag queens. I'm sure there's a lesson to be learned somewhere in that fact, but a general rule we seem to be learning is to not make films about extremely complex global issues as they are happening. Like Matt said after we left this, the best movies about Vietnam, for example, came out several years after everything was over. You need perspective to understand how to make meaningful films about these subjects, but Hollywood is just rushing to make sensational fluff like Rendition and The Kingdom. Since the trend will presumably continue, here's hoping for at least a more thoughtful movie in the near future.


  1. I definitely didn't love this film either :(

  2. Wasn't it awful?

    Since you've given me a chance to comment, I need to do a mini-update. About 30 people a week find this review by searching for "douglas freeman's girlfriend." Google that and this is literally the first result. Great, but as soon as they realize I don't have pictures or whatever they're looking for, they're gone.

    OK, people: the character, Safiya, is played by Hadar Ratzon. That's all I know. Go tell your friends, and you're welcome. Whatever I can do to prevent people from having to watch this again.


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