Cheat-Seeking Missles

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Rendition: The "Loud Voice/Small Mind" View

Disclosure: I am not going to see the film Rendition, but I have plenty to say about it nonetheless. This is a legitimate position because I'm not setting out to be a movie critic, but for the last three years and three days (I seem to have just missed noting C-SM's third anniversary) I've become a noted (by a few hundred folks, at least) social critic.

The story line of rendition, as told us by that trusty source, Reuters, is pretty straightforward:

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon, "Rendition" tells the fictional story of an Egyptian-American engineer abducted by U.S. customs at Washington airport, deported to a North African jail and tortured under the eyes of a CIA agent.

Witherspoon plays the man's pregnant wife desperately trying to track him down, while Gyllenhaal is the reluctant CIA agent asked to supervise his brutal interrogation.

The more you read about this film, the more you see how South African director Gavin Hood has gone out of his way to create a sympathetic victim. The renditionee, Anwar El-Ibrahimi (played by Omar Metwally) is described by LA Times reviewer Carina Chocano as "He lives in a Craftsman house in the Chicago suburbs and makes $200,000 a year. He's handsome, athletic and expensively educated," and to top it off, he has a cute blond American (pregnant yet!) wife. The CIA agent, Gyllenhaal, is "reluctant" because he's not clear what the rules are, and he thinks they're being over-stepped.

Any other approach and Hood would risk losing what little audience the movie will attract. If Metwally's character had a level of suspicion around him significant enough to trigger rendition, if his wife were a Muslim equally suspicious in her nature, if the CIA agent knew the rules and made sure they were applied (which is, after all, his job), Hood would be left with a limp story. Instead, he's got himself a pulpit-flick, and he admits it:
"(It's) not just the people to whom it happens but the people who are involved in having to do this and they don't quite know what the rules are ... We don't have the answers but I think we ask people to ask the questions and I hope the film contributes to the debate."
"Debate" being the key word. Anyone who has ever been on a debate team knows the ploy of deliberate overstatement in order to emphasize a point. That's a fine and well-worked strategy, but I'm not going to pay $8 to watch it done if there's no rebuttal offered.

I feel the liberal media breathing down my neck even as I write this simple request for a balanced movie on the issue. I turn around with a start. Sure enough, it's A.O. Scott of the NY Times:
Given the tenor of political discussion these days, it is inevitable that someone with a loud voice and a small mind will label “Rendition” anti-American. (But look! A quick Internet search reveals that some people already have, many of them without even bothering to see the movie.) It is, after all, much easier to rant and rave about treacherous Hollywood liberals than to think through the moral and strategic questions raised by some of the policies of the American government. But it is just these questions that “Rendition” tries to address, in a manner that, while hardly neutral — it may not shock you to learn that the filmmakers come out against torture, kidnapping and other abuses — nonetheless tries to be evenhanded and thoughtful. “Rendition” may be earnest, but it is hardly naïve. Rather, it tries to be thoughtful and respectful of complexity while at the same time honoring the imperatives of commercial entertainment.
So I have a small mind and a loud voice because I want to hear the issue from someone who hasn't come out against "(undefined and surely ill-defined) torture, kidnapping (but hardly of innocent kids) and other (unnamed, but let your imagination wander) abuses."

"The imperatives of commercial entertainment" Scott mentions are what I kicked around at the outset: Sympathetic heroes who are not terrorists, a nasty enemy willing to shred not just lives but the American Way, and an agent caught in the middle. Would that it were true, but if the records of rendition were suddenly opened, we would find unsympathetic targets, interrogators doing their best to protect people like Hood, Gyllenhaal and Witherspoon from terror attacks -- and a lot of internal pushing and pushing back regarding how far we should go with this particular tactic, then a scrupulous following of the defined rules.

Instead, Hood has created a predictable plot upon which to set his pulpit. His hapless victim has done nothing at all wrong in the world except have a name that's one letter off from a terrorism suspect who's been implicated in a bombing that just occurred, killing an American operative. I'll let the LAT reviewer pick it up from there:
The man's death leaves a young and inexperienced Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) in charge and sends CIA honcho Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep) into a retaliatory frenzy. Local officials in North Africa, led by an intimidating Abasi Fawal (Igal Naor), are happy to oblige with Whitman's request that the prisoner be squeezed until he talks, to the free-thinking Freeman's growing discomfort. Meanwhile, the hugely pregnant Isabella (Witherspoon) starts knocking on doors, starting with that of an ex-boyfriend named Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard) who works for a powerful senator (Alan Arkin).
Does it sound like every anti-American, anti-war film you've ever seen, including the fun but nasty Bourne Ultimatum? Streep's character, the CIA agent who refuses to follow the rules, is a fine Hollywood construct because it allows Hood and his ilk to quickly do away with the fact that there are rules. And of course the Senator is played by Alan Arkin, the most glitterati of the Hollywood libs, who is so excellent at playing slithery politicians.

But in the end, it's all a plot sham designed to preach, not entertain, and the American people have stayed away in droves. It limped into ninth place in the weekend box office, behind even a re-issue of Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas and a Disney re-issue I've never even heard of.

That's fine, as far as it goes, but it's irrelevant. Hood will make his producers rich when the film opens in Europe and the Middle East, where it will do further harm to the world opinion of America. Hood and Hollywood attackers of America will be the winner, and America, which is only trying to defend the world from Islamist terrorism, will be the loser.

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