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Rendition a.k.a. “Machtlos”

MPAA Rating: R-Rating (MPAA) for torture/violence and language

Reviewed by: Kenneth R. Morefield

Better than Average
Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Thriller, Politics, Drama
2 hr. 2 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
October 19, 2007 (wide—2,200 theaters)
Featuring: Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep, Alan Arkin,J.K. Simmons, Peter Sarsgaard, See all »
Director: Gavin Hood
Tsotsi,” “A Reasonable Man,” “The Storekeeper”
Producer: Toby Emmerich, Keith Goldberg, See all »
Distributor: New Line Cinema

“What if someone you loved… just disappeared?”

“Rendition” is a film about torture, which, I hope we can all agree, is a serious subject and therefore deserves serious treatment at the hands of a sincere and capable team or artists.

Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) is an Egyptian married to an American (Reese Witherspoon). He is detained at an airport because phone records indicate he may have had contact with a terrorist claiming responsibility for a recent bombing. When he denies any knowledge of the terrorist plot, Anwar is taken to a secret prison outside the United States where his torture is executed by a foreign national but witnessed by a newly promoted American official (Jake Gyllenhaal as the not so subtly named Douglas Freeman). Freeman shows up to work in a shirt still soaked in the blood of the boss that was killed in the suicide bombing, so he can be excused for taking awhile to get over his shock and realize that all this torture isn’t making his world a safer place. Gyllenhaal, by the way, spends the entire film on the verge of giving a command performance, but his ability to credibly portray the mix of shock and inner conflict (making him the perfect audience surrogate) is ultimately undercut by scene after scene where the script forces him to vocalize what the acting has already conveyed to the attentive viewer that he is feeling.

My fear, whenever I approach commercial films about serious subjects is that the subject matter will somehow be trivialized either by the fact that the artists are not up to the task of conveying (or in some cases even seeing) the complexity and difficulty of issues that touch the lives of so many of us so deeply or by the fact that the inherent tension (contradiction?) between the medium and the message can leave some in the audience with the feeling that even well made and sincere films can cheapen or diminish the scope and consequences of extreme evil.

In the past two years I’ve seen three great films about torture, its repercussions, and its blowback: Joseph Castelo’s “The War Within,” Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Army of Shadows,” and Jean-Luc Godard’s “Le Petit Soldad.” In some very important ways, I realize, that makes me the worst possible reviewer for “Rendition,” because Gavin Hood’s film, while not sinking to the level of slick exploitation also doesn’t approach the level of insight and power of those three films. One part of me feels unfair about even inviting the comparison, because (to paraphrase Milton) it’s wrong to suggest that the good is bad just because it is inferior to the best. Another part of me, however, thinks there is nothing wrong with holding works of art about serious subjects to a higher standard. There is an emotional and spiritual cost to watching someone (even a fictional someone) be tortured, and if an artist asks me to pay that cost, I would like to think the payoff will be something a little bit deeper than “torture is bad” or “all it takes for evil to succeed is for good people to do nothing.”

Godard who managed to make art that was both political and great had this to say about “Le Petit Soldad”: “What concerned me was the problem of war and its moral repercussions. Therefore I showed a guy who poses himself a great many problems. He doesn’t know how to resolve them, but posing them, even with confusion, is already an attempt. It is more valuable perhaps to pose questions than to refuse to question or to believe oneself capable of resolving everything.” When I read that quote, it helped me to articulate a distinction that had been brewing in my mind a long time—there are films that invite you, nay demand you, to think deeply about their subject matter, and there are films that simply tell you what to think about their subject matter. The former we call masterpieces. The latter we call propaganda.

“Rendition” stops short of claiming that it has (or is capable of) resolving everything, but it comes pretty close. The proponents of extreme rendition are represented through the evil senator, Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep in yet another aged and unrepentant monster role), who pays lip service to lives saved through information gathered with extreme interrogation methods but refuses to look in the face of the wife of the man she has ordered tortured. I sense that there will be some red state, conservative objections to the film on the basis of card-stacking, but I think the real problem lies deeper than that. It’s not that I wanted the film to be a more “fair and balanced” polemic on its political subject matter, it’s that I wanted it be a film about its subject matter and not a polemic at all. As a sort of narrative editorial, the film works better than other works of commercially narrative propaganda (e.g. “Battle in Seattle” or “The Life of David Gale”), but it did leave me wondering who the target audience really was and whether it had hoped to accomplish something more than reassuring those of us who already agree with its politics that by golly “we’re right and they’re wrong.”

Maybe that is just my cynicism talking. I hope it is. I saw the film with two others who suggested to me that perhaps the target audience wasn’t those who agreed or disagreed with its politics but those who have not really thought much about the implications of the erosion of our civil liberties justified as necessary in the war on terror. Buying a shirt that one thinks might have been made in a sweat shop is quite different from watching someone toil under inhumane conditions; pulling a voting lever for a candidate who supports extreme rendition is more abstract than actually being forced to look at what is glossed over by that Orwellian term.

So if you haven’t thought much about torture and want to start, by all means go see “Rendition” as a first step. If you are morally or politically against the use of torture, the film will probably make you feel good about yourself for being ahead of the curve and on the right side of history. If you support the use of torture and other “alternate interrogation methods” the film will no doubt confirm for you that those who don’t simply aren’t aware of the complexity of the issue and have to resort to card-stacking to feel good about their argument. Then, after you are done letting “Rendition” tell you what to think about torture, consider renting one of the above mentioned masterpieces on DVD as a second step. None of them will tell you what to think, but each will invite you to think.

And remember, in this two step process, the first step is optional.

Violence: Heavy / Profanity: Moderate / Sex/Nudity: Moderate

See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.

Viewer Comments
Comments below:
Neutral—This movie was somewhat of a disappointment to me. I knew it was largely about torture, so even though that was very disturbing, it was the lack of plot development that really disappointed. This movie is extremely predictable. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the movie. Reese Witherspoon is one of my favorite actors but she did nothing above average in this movie. I’d wait for DVD.
My Ratings: Offensive / 3½
Rachelle Smotherman, age 34
Neutral—This movie had a lot of good elements to it. The way it was shot made it more interesting and the way certain plot points developed made it less cliche. During the torcher scenes it did show the man’s butt which could be construed as not fitting for smaller eyes. In general the brutality wasn’t all that much, my wife is very sensitive and was able to take all of the moments. They give you just enough to where you know you never want to be in that situation. My main problem with the story was the tag. There was no big finish to the movie. Maybe it was done like that on purpose, but to me I left the theater wondering what happened with this character and that character. Not enough resolve for my taste. I would say catch this one on DVD.
My Ratings: Offensive / 2½
Jon Roberts, age 29
Neutral—IF you go into this movie knowing that it is a “left-wing” movie (which we did), you may actually enjoy this one. The quality of film making and the acting was very good!

Less than 10 “f” words and a handful of other profanities, but definitely not a lot for a R-movie! Beware of some torture type violence, though. Overall, good movie.
My Ratings: Offensive / 4½
Amanda, age 23
Neutral—I can’t say I really enjoyed this movie, though it made you think and wonder how many innocent people have gone through something like that and the moral implications of it. As far as content, there were torture scenes, though they wern’t as brutal or gory as I thought they would be. The man is striped of his clothing for most of it, you don’t see much, though theres a few shots of his backside. There were a few scenes of mild sexuality, nothing is shown, no nudity, and I didn’t find there was a lot of language either. The acting was good, Meryl Streep did really well as always. The plot was a bit confusing at times, especially towards the end. I was a bit dissapointed with the movie, I thought it was going to be better. Wait for DVD.
My Ratings: Offensive / 3
Krys, age 26
Comments from young people
Positive—I watched it on DVD the first time and was a little uncomfortable with about 6 uses of the f-word. So the second time, I watched it on TV which takes out f-words, so if you want to watch it, that’s the way to go. I kept hearing that this was a super violent, gory movie, so I was expecting to see two hours of someone getting tortured. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. I thought it was a very good movie. There were not too many curse words (No OMGs, which made me very happy). The only think I can remember was someone calling someone a son of a b***.

There were a couple of uncomfortable scenes where the main character is kissing his girl friend, and she only has a towel around her, and he has boxers on. Then another one, where they start kissing and fall into bed, but nothing happens. I thought the acting was incredible, and, overall, a good movie.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Better than Average / Moviemaking quality: 4½
Brianna, age 15 (USA)