Media Elite Don’t Get “Rendition”

by Marc Norton on October 26, 2007

Rendition, the gripping new movie by award-winning South African director Gavin Hood, is suffering the fate of many good political films — damned by faint praise.

The Los Angeles Times calls Rendition “a pat and generic, if serviceable, political thriller.” The New York Times calls the film “clumsy,” an odd word from the nation’s newspaper of record, which helped sell us the war in Iraq, and shepherds along every liberty-killing move of the post-9/11 regime. The Voice of America is distributing a review that claims that Rendition “is drowning in the blank stares of a hapless CIA agent {Jake Gyllenhaal} and the whimpers of a helpless soccer mom {Reese Witherspoon}.” You did know that the Voice of America does movie reviews, didn’t you?

Ebert and Roeper, those two zany guys, call Rendition “very mediocre” and — this is really the point — ultimately damaged by its “liberal fervor.” They actually complain that the film industry is producing movies critical of the “war on terror” in the middle of the war, rather than wait until years later, like all those hard-hitting, but very late, Vietnam war movies. The political center has moved so far to the right these days that it is “liberal fervor” to question torture.

Ignore this smokescreen, and go see Rendition. Hood has created a solid, moving film that dramatically portrays the neo-fascist terror at the heart of our degenerating political system. Hood’s last movie, Tsotsi, won an Oscar last year for Best Foreign Language Film. Hood deserves more awards for Rendition. But even though the film looks and feels like a Hollywood production, the movers and shakers in the southland are finding it too hot to handle.

Rendition is the story of an Egyptian-American, Anwar El-Ibrahimi, grabbed by the CIA when he gets off a plane in Washington DC, after a flight from South Africa. He is interrogated by a menacing CIA agent, and then secretly shipped off to a torture chamber in an unnamed North African country. What follows are not scenes for young kids or those with squeamish stomachs. “Harsh interrogation techniques,” including a graphic water-boarding scene, have never been more real on screen. El-Ibrahimi is played by Omar Metwally.

The existence of just such CIA “ghost detainees” and “black sites” is well-documented. Rendition, the movie, is fiction, but rendition, part and parcel of US national security policy, is not. Rendition, the policy, was first promulgated by none other than Bill Clinton, and then seized upon by George Bush with a vengeance. No wonder this movie makes apologists for the American empire — both liberal and conservative –uncomfortable.

Rendition is a policy reserved (at least to our knowledge) for accused terrorists captured outside the borders of the US, although obviously not outside the world-wide reach of our ruling elite. Yet the parallel with one citizen-American — Jose Padilla — is evident, although it has eluded most reviewers. Both the fictional El-Ibrahimi and the real-life Padilla, a US citizen of Puerto-Rican descent, were grabbed as they got off a plane, in Padilla’s case in Chicago, after a flight from Pakistan. Like El-Ibrahimi, Padilla was held incommunicado, and tortured. These government-perpetrated crimes were later winked at by the Supreme Court in Rumsfeld v. Padilla. After more legal shenanigans and a preposterous show trial, Padilla is now in a federal prison, awaiting a probable life sentence.

Rendition is also the story of El-Ibrahimi’s blonde American wife, played by Witherspoon, who attempts desperately to find her disappeared husband. But nobody, in the end, will help her, not even her former boyfriend who works for a powerful US Senator. There is more than a hint of racism when the boyfriend, played by Peter Sarsgaard, asks her how well she really knows her Egyptian-born husband. Watching the Senator, played to a tee by Alan Arkin, dress down Sarsgaard, the congressional aide, for even suggesting that he go out on a limb to help Witherspoon, is a dramatic lesson in the failure of our supposed democracy to uphold even the most basic of human rights.

Rendition is also the story of a CIA agent, played by Gyllenhaal, thrown by circumstances into his “first torture,” who slowly rebels against his role. His name in the movie is Douglas Freeman, in case anyone misses the point. Gyllenhall, of recent Zodiac fame, does the part well. His nemisis is the incomparable Meryl Streep, a CIA bureaucrat in charge of torture. Streep plays the part much like the Eichmann who Hannah Arendt described in her classic Report on the Banality of Evil. While Streep is a study in unrepentant immorality, Gyllenhall is all too human, suffers through some very believable angst, and ends up a hero.

One could argue that only in Hollywood would a CIA agent turn because of the immorality of his job. But, just this week, the New York Times carried a story about Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Diaz, a Navy lawyer with an up-and-coming career, described as “a stellar leader of unquestionable integrity” by his commanding officer, who volunteered for duty at Guantánamo. Once at the island prison, Diaz also saw the immorality of his job. In an act of rebellion, he created a list of all the detainees at Guantánamo, and sent it off to the progressive lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). The lawyers at CCR turned the list over to the federal Justice Department. For his courageous act, instead of the medal Diaz deserves, he has been awarded six months in a military brig.

The last time we see CIA agent Freeman, we know that he faces a future just as bleak, maybe worse, than Diaz. As the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished, especially not in the 21st-century American world. But Freeman, the fictional CIA agent, and Diaz, the real military lawyer, are following in the footsteps of other real heroes — including former CIA agent Phillip Agee and former FBI agent M. Wesley Swearingen, who both chose to testify to the world about the crimes that they saw committed.

Finally, and most importantly, Rendition is the story of the people of North Africa, really of all people who are victims of the heavy hand of US imperial power. While the movie doesn’t have the political sophistication of some recent films, such as Syriana, it poignantly lays bare the human cost of enforcing US imperial policy, for both the occupied and the occupiers, even for the torturers themselves.

It all comes together in a breathtaking scene near the end of the movie, a twist that you won’t expect. Some reviewers have criticized the ending as confusing, and it does take some thinking to understand. But that is the point of this movie — to make you think. That is exactly what all the luke-warm and negative reviewers don’t want to do, and don’t want you to do.

Marc Norton is a bellman at a small hotel in downtown San Francisco. Contact him at, or through his website at

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