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Rendition – Coup-de-cinema: the grammar of film

what do we stand for?

you can't defend freedom abroad by denying it at home

Rendition – Gavin Hood

Coup-de-Cinema is the only term I can think of to describe the quite extraordinary twist that ends this otherwise workmanlike, enjoyable but unremarkable political thriller.

The practice of political ‘rendition’ is new enough not to appear in the dictionary as a separate meaning from one of its literal senses of simply ‘surrendering’ a person up to another. The film suggests that this practice, initiated under President Clinton for use only in extreme circumstances, was given much more liberal application post-9/11 as an essential weapon in the ‘War on Terror’. It appears to be based upon the twin national self-deceptions of what we might call – ‘out of country, out of (legal) jurisdiction’; and the commonplace human evasion of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Guantanamo Bay is the paradigm example of the first; the second being the heavily hinted transportation of suspected terrorists by the US for secret torture-based interrogation in countries with a political and legal structure that will turn a blind eye to it.

Director Hood doesn’t seem to have been able to make up his mind how seriously he wanted to take the moral contradictions at the heart of this practice that sets the saving of innocent civilian lives off against the cynical suspension of basic human rights. The age-old moral conflict of the end justifying the means starkly posed. But not really explored. The reason for the rendition of Egyptian-born Chemical engineer Anwar El-Ibrahimi to an undisclosed Middle-Eastern State hinges on a piece of strong factual evidence that is never satisfactorily explained away.

We might forgive this plot weakness if the screenplay was otherwise up to its ostensible moral aspirations: perhaps the most perplexing dilemma in modern politics – balancing effective protection absolutist terrorism with maintaining the rights of the individual. Instead in common with many Hollywood directors, Hood tries to blag weak thinking past us with strong acting performances. Yigal Naor as dedicated interrogator Abasi Fawal is superb in a powerful evocation of a man living within the moral contradictions of Middle-East conflicts, who sees torture as a necessary evil against the implacability of fanatical terrorists. Yigal we sense does not do the United States’ dirty work for money or fun, but because he believes it is the only real option available. However hatefully illiberal his argument may be it can be given a more powerful, harder to shoot down, expression than Hood manages. If Yigal is a fascinating credible character we see too little of, Meryl Streep despite a fine performance as Corrinne Whitman is a too easy caricature of a cynical FBI chief blithely authorising Anwar’s rendition without much evidence and little thought. Just as the US government hides from the moral reality of its actions though rendition, so Hood wimps out of the disturbing argument by making Streep’s character shallow, bitchy and self-centred.

Having thus jettisoned the powerful dramatic core of his film Hood only spasmodically delivers a tense entertaining thriller. But we must give him credit for that remarkable coup-de-cinema at the end. The plot is fairly routine: FBI analyst Douglas Freeman (Jake Gylenhaal) witnesses a terrorist bombing in which a field-agent colleague is killed. FBI staff shortages apparently propel him into the front-line of acting as witness to the interrogation of US renditioned prisoners. Reese Witherspoon’s (Isabella – ‘Izzy’) husband Anwar, returning from a conference in South Africa is lifted at Kennedy Airport and flown straight out of the country and into Yigal’s custody for interrogation. In desperation Izzy seeks help from Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard) an old flame and friend of hers and Anwar’s from University, now aide to a Senator Hawkins (Alan Arkin). Honest efforts to help eventually founder on the political ambition of Hakwins and Smith when it becomes clear there is some evidence, however flimsy, to link Anwar with a terrorist figure. It is left to Freeman to effect a rescue when he becomes first disgusted with the torture then certain that Anwar is innocent.

The device that Hood uses to draw these plot lines together with the back-story of Yigal’s young daughter’s love for an idealistic young artist is, as far as my memory serves me, absolutely unique. Other directors have created similar kinds of twist but this one is innovative for me in that its impact depends not upon unexpected features from within the narrative – but from the cinematic techniques used to create it. More would give things away. If we think of all the techniques of film-making, shot selection, lighting, cinematography and editing as what we might call the ‘grammar’ of film then Hood brilliantly uses this grammar to induce us to ‘read’ the film in a way that he suddenly whips away from us. The effect for me is powerful and works better than anything else in the film.

Overall a film that doesn’t quite live up to its aspirations but is at times tense, absorbing and keeps the attention. And an innovative ending that curiously, cannot be used too often on pain of making the audience too knowing and therefore impossible to persuade. A bit like the problem the Whodunnit literary genre has with creating a meaningful ‘least likely’ murderer because savvy readers knowing the conventions of the genre ‘read’ characters not as part of the narrative, but as stock figures in a genre. Trivially – no one can be surprised when the Butler did it. Except as a double-bluff.

Rendition is well worth a look

(October 2007)

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