dir: Gavin Hood
[img_assist|nid=80|title=Come with me please, you look a bit terroristy|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=400|height=241]
Rendition is, yes, another one of those recent films tagged “political” by those reluctant to be drawn into the culture wars (which is, usually, most people) but eager to dismiss something with the least amount of effort required.
Just in case you thought movies don’t mean squat unless they’re based on something true, Rendition is based on the ordeal of Khaled el-Masri, a German national of Kuwaiti descent, who was taken from the Serbian-Macedonian border and held and beaten in prison in Afghanistan for five months in 2004.
And then released when they figured out that it was Khaled AL-Masri that they were looking for in the first place. Because if they’d beaten that guy for five months, it would have been all right.
The title refers to the use of the term rendition, or extreme rendition, as applied to the manner in which the CIA can decide some people with potential information or contacts in the terrorist community can be snatched up and disappeared as if they never existed. Then, once they’re wearing a headbag, they’re whisked away to a country where foreigners can torture them for information. See, America doesn’t do torture. But if someone else wants to do it for them, well, why the hell not? It would be the height of ingratitude to not take advantage of their hospitality and flexible positions on human rights.
When the person who’s kidnapped and tortured is just a stinking foreigner goatherding their way through their family-less and friendless lives, then it’s not an issue worthy of being brought to our notice. But when the guy is a fully fledged America lover with a pregnant blonde wife (Reese Witherspoon) and a son called Jeremy, then it’s really a crying shame and a travesty when the guy is kidnapped and tortured for his suspected terrorist links.
I’m not sure exactly where most of this story transpires apart from the Washington and Chicago bits, but it’s North Africa at the very least. Morocco, Tunisia, probably not Algeria, but it hardly matters. It’s a place where there are lots of Arab speakers and Muslims living in hot and dusty climes. Which are, as we know, a recipe for two things: fundamentalist terrorists and forbidden love.
They’re also a prime setting for a refresher course in hypocrisy. When a bomb goes off, threatening the life of a local police official who doubles as a torturer (Yigal Naor), everyone goes berserk trying to find the people behind the attack. It’s not because of a desire to bring to justice to those responsible for killing 19 people and maiming many more. It’s because an American CIA case officer is killed in the attack.
Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) is a chemical engineer jet-setting around the world to industry conferences and symposiums. He’s been living in America for twenty years, and has no known connections or sympathies with terrorists. Just prior to departing from Cape Town in South Africa, his mobile gets a call that never connects properly. By the time he gets on his flight back to the States, he’s already on a hitlist, and is about to have the most exhilarating and adventurous week or so of his life.
He is snatched at the airport and questioned rigorously, but without any hands-on get-to-know-your-insides type questioning. When this yields nothing, they decide that only torture can give them the certainty they require. With the approval of a CIA high-up (Meryl Streep), Anwar jets off to a hellhole where torture is not only doable, but something worthy of putting in the Lonely Planet guide as an additional aspect of local colour.
Anwar’s wife goes berserk, and tries to influence anyone she can in order to find out where her husband is and why. She looks up a former flame (Peter Sarsgaad) who works as an aide to a wily senator (Alan Arkin), neither of whom are willing to be seen as being soft on terrorism by sticking up for someone accused of being a terrorist.
Anwar’s torturer, Abasi Fawal is not a sadistic man, or at least he doesn’t appear to be. He is the spitting image of Telly Savalas, nonetheless, so he is quite an imposing presence. He is, all the same, a man comfortable with tormenting suspected terrorists in order to weed out any information they might possess. If they don’t give up anything worthwhile, then they weren’t being tortured hard enough. And if they die, well, they’ve only got themselves to blame anyway.
All the old favourites are brought to bear on Anwar: naked, constantly hobbled with shackles, stress positions, thrown into a hole too cramped to lie down or sit up straight in, drowning (which is what ‘waterboarding’ actually is, there’s no simulation about it) slapped around and beaten, and, eventually, the loving kiss of electricity. Other people pay a fortune to have people do this kind of stuff to them in elite health spas and dominatrix dungeons, and here’s Anwar getting it all for free, the ungrateful bastard.
Why’s he holding out? Doesn’t he know he’s just making it harder on himself? His continued lack of confession is seen as even more of an admission of guilt than if he’d actually confessed to something grandly terroristic. I mean, that means perfect sense to me.
All through these, um, vigorous questionings, a young American CIA analyst (Jake Gyllenhaal) watches with barely disguised revulsion. It’s for him that this nasty work is being done, but he doesn’t seem to be too happy about it. He never really gets into it, and becomes a walking zombie of a man, depressed not because of the lack of information, but because it’s occurring in the first place. Even when it starts looking as if it could be leading to results, he faces the decision that no-one else in the entire world seems willing to make.
As was the title of the recent Kings of Leon album, it’s Because of the Times. It’s because of these times in which we live where there don’t seem to be any bridges too far in terms of what is seen as being allowable in the carrying out of this nebulous War on Terror. If the terrorists, freedom-hating, Ronald MacDonald-punchers that they are, have no restrictions on the atrocities they are willing to commit, why should nation-states have to pull their punches? When Gyllenhaal’s character bitches about the unreliability of torture for information gathering purposes , a character tells him “We have a saying, “beat your wife every morning: you don’t know why, but she knows.”
In other words, the mentality is that they don’t want actual or potential terrorists thinking that they’ll be treated gently if they’re ever captured. Even when they’re not guilty of anything, they should dread every interaction and fear for more than their lives and their family’s lives every day of their miserable Allah-loving lives.
Fighting terrorism with terrorism. Prove to me it doesn’t work. I know that whenever there’s a fire in my kitchen, what I like to do is bring out the flamethrower to put out the conflagration. It’s bound to work eventually.
Rendition struck a lot of people as simplistic and a polemic exercise because it constructs a drama around the idea of someone enjoying rendition at the behest of the CIA in the contemporary political climate. In other words, it’s one sided and preaching only to the converted who already believe torture is always wrong, and that all the euphemisms in the world can’t change it, whether you call it torture or enhanced interrogation.
Frankly, I’m perplexed at the way in which critics dismissed this flick. It’s well made, it does speak plainly and openly about a situation as it has existed since the Clinton Administration and way before that, and puts the lie to the idea that the United States can simultaneously fight for human rights and democracy the world over when it condones and benefits from torture. It doesn’t even come down to who should do what in a world gone mad over terrorism. It dramatically puts together a story where a guy gets tortured with little evidence yet gets trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare whereby innocence counts for nothing, and yet it’s seen as unfortunate but justifiable by those in the positions of power.
It makes my blood boil and my teeth hurt. I wonder how it is that people can still argue that there are situations that could potentially justify torturing someone for information (the ticking time bomb scenario), despite the really obvious point that there isn’t a single documented case of when such a thing has happened and saved countless lives. Because the beauty of these circular arguments is that these circumstances would be classified top secret anyway! So the Powers That Be simply allude to situations where it might have happened without having to substantiate specific instances, and then everybody’s happy!
About the only time I can remember a film making the pro-torture argument seem almost credible was a classy flick with Nicolas Cage and Shirley McClain called Guarding Tess, where she played a former First Lady under Secret Service protection in her twilight years. She ends up being kidnapped (Spoiler Alert!), and Cage’s character shoots someone in the foot to find out where she has been buried alive.
Only real heroes can make the hard decisions.
Since then it has been standard procedure by the intelligence services once it passed into law. The legislation was further backed up with a sterling legal foundation once the Jack Bauer Law was passed by both the Congress and Senate and ratified into law by the President in honour of the excellent work carried out by Kiefer Sutherland in keeping America safe from terrorists on the documentary television show 24, one bullet wound to the leg at a time.
And everything everywhere immediately got better for ever and ever.
And yet a flick where the harrowing tale of a person being disappeared by the state and tortured (by mistake, as if that makes any difference) for nothing, is dismissed as a work of propaganda. That people’s fatigue with war and terrorism stories renders them deaf and bored in the face of such movies astounds me.
Well, fuck that. I’ll go on the record saying that the flick is impressive all around, and probably with the exception of Reese Witherspoon in her thankless role of the whining wife, everyone does great work here, even Gyllenhaal, who looks like he was on downers the whole time. Three storylines are intertwined adeptly and in a compelling manner, with an added twist that one of the storylines is occurring in a different time frame to the other two, with an emotional and crushing climax. The flick has no clear “good” or “bad” guys (excluding the obvious jihadi terrorists, who are obviously bad guys by default, but the flick’s not about them), studiously avoids mindless action sequences, but it does have a lot of people doing and accepting a lot of morally dubious actions for many different rationalisations and justifications that don’t amount to a hill of beans.
Gavin Hood’s excellent work here shows me that his debut Tsotsi was no fluke. If anything Rendition is even more competent as a film and at telling its story, with far more complexity to it. It’s contemporary, it “felt” real, unlike many of the other contrived flicks that have come out in the same milieu (Lions for Lambs, Home of the Brave, The Kingdom), and it’s dramatically satisfying. That’s more than I can say for most contemporary flicks about America and its place in this Brave New Terrorism-Flavoured World.
It’s a strong film, and one that leaves me with a very strong idea of what I would beg those who condone this current regime and belief structure to answer truthfully in response to the issue of torture: If you can assert that there are situations in which the State can be justified in torturing people to protect either the State or some nebulous common good, then you can accept that there are occasions where they’re going to get it wrong, and you’re okay with that. In that case, do you also accept that if you, or someone you care about is disappeared and tortured, without oversight or legal recourse or any hope of salvation, that you’re okay with that too, since it’s an unfortunate but necessary step towards winning the War on Terror?
Spare me, please. Some arguments don’t have two sides.
9 pro-torture arguments that are part of the War on Basic Human fucking Dignity out of 10
“In all the years you've been doing this, how often can you say that we've produced truly legitimate intelligence? Once? Twice? Ten times? Give me a statistic; give me a number. Give me a pie chart, I love pie charts. Anything, anything that outweighs the fact that if you torture one person you create ten, a hundred, a thousand new enemies.” - Rendition