Thursday, October 18, 2007

Hollywood wages war for hearts and minds

By Derek Malcolm
Evening Standard 18.10.07

RenditionHelplessly hoping: Reese Witherspoon as the pregnant wife of a terror suspect who is tortured under the CIA's rendition programme RenditionSpymaster: Meryl Streep plays the CIA chief responsible for the rendition programme RenditionArresting: Gavin Hood's film is a brave piece of work

"Extraordinary rendition", introduced not during the Bush administration but under Clinton, as one character in this fair-minded if obviously liberal film comments, involves surreptitiously arresting terrorist suspects and transporting them to another country where either American or local interrogators can use imprisonment and even torture to prise their secrets out of them. No judicial process is involved and the democratic process is entirely avoided.

That is the subject of Gavin Hood's film - one of several in the pipeline to show us that Hollywood is not as frightened as American television of attacking the US government's more doubtful practices.

It is a brave piece of work, but by no means perfect, since the screenplay goes one way and the direction another. The former is often melodramatic in essence and relies for effect on a series of coincidences that only weaken it. The latter, however, carefully avoids too many thrills and too much drama, though possibly to the point of making the whole a little less exciting than it ought to be.

The unfortunate man who suffers rendition is Anwar (Omar Metwally), a young chemical engineer born in Egypt but educated in America and now living in Chicago with his pregnant-wife (Reese Witherspoon). While he is out of the country on a business trip, a bomb in an unnamed North African country and a series of phone calls from a man with the same name who is a known terrorist make him a suspect.

Without even his family's knowledge, he is kidnapped, bundled onto a plane and sent to another country's prison, where a relatively inexperienced CIA operative (Jake Gyllenhaal) is assisted by an Arab policeman and interpreter (Igal Naor, actually an Israeli actor) in the task of making him confess. For most of the rest of the film, Anwar is bound and stark naked. And the torture includes waterboarding, electric shocks and beatings.

Meanwhile, his wife is almost hysterical at home. She enlists the aid of her exboyfriend (Peter Sarsgaard), the chief of staff to the Senator (Alan Arkin). But her confrontation with him and the icily hostile CIA chief (Meryl Streep) responsible for the rendition programme gives her scant comfort.

It is a pity that Gyllenhaal's CIA torturer just happens to have had his partner killed in the North African bombing, and that the Arab policeman is given a pretty daughter who is upsetting him by wanting to marry a man whose brother is a member of a radical Islamic group. That seems to be loading the dice too much and the romance is one of the weakest elements of the film.

It is also a pity that Hood, a South African director who made the admirable Tsotsi, often confusingly pushes his film backwards and forwards between South Africa, California, Washington and Marrakesh.

Even so, he is to be congratulated. While Rendition forcibly attacks the American government's methods - everyone in the CIA seems bent on perverting democracy in some way - it also forces you to ask the age-old question: would you be willing to advocate torture if you could save many innocent lives by that means? The problem is that torture makes people say anything to stop it, as the film points out obliquely.