A political thriller with no opinions on politics

Since the beginning of the medium, film has been utilized for political purposes. Despite their controversial content, both The Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will were tremendously effective examples of political filmmaking. In more recent years, films like Good Night And Good Luck and The Insider had stray political currents running through them. Whether or not audiences agreed with the political content of these films, it’s hard not to agree they were made with a purpose in mind. The same cannot be said of Rendition.

When a terrorist attack in an ambiguously-named North African country kills a CIA operative, the American government detains an Egyptian-American flying home from a business trip to South Africa. The man is held without cause, questioned and placed on a flight back to North Africa–a procedure known as extraordinary rendition. Once in Africa, the man is tortured for information by the target of the original attack, the head of the country’s intelligence agency (Yigal Noar), and the partner of the deceased CIA agent who must now take his place (Jake Gyllenhaal). Meanwhile, the detainee’s wife (Reese Witherspoon) tries to work with a Senator’s aide (Peter Sarsgaard) to find out what happened to her husband.

Directed by Gavin Hood, an Academy Award winner for the South African film Tsotsi, and written by Kelley Sane, Rendition opens with promise. The stylistic and narrative choices made by Hood, bounding between several concurrent narratives, are reminiscent of Traffic and Syriana. The effect is bolstered by the initially-organic connections between the various characters. Problems arise in the latter parts of the film where characters interact not for logical reasons, but because the screenplay dictates they should. A twist near the end of the second act also downgrades the plot from “muddled” to “confusing,” seemingly for the sake of making the film more difficult to follow.

The film also suffers from a critical flaw in that it has no idea what the point of the film is supposed to be. The spiritual child of cautionary stories about drugs and oil, Rendition has nothing to say about the highly-controversial practice of unlawfully extraditing and torturing people for the sake of national security. A haggard Meryl Streep and pregnant Reese Witherspoon are given the tasks of arguing for and against the practice respectively, but both speak in frustrating absolutes. While this may be by direction of the writer, it makes the characters seem one-dimensional and the scenes involving them a chore to wade through. The film’s only compelling characters are the ones forced to live in the uncomfortable grey areas. Sarsgaard, Gyllenhaal and Yigal Naor are the only actors involved in Rendition given interesting things to do. Gyllenhaal, in particular, continues a streak of strong performances.

Given the performance and critical acclaim of Traffic and Syriana, the production of Rendition surely seemed like a no-brainer to studio executives. Take a controversial issue, throw together an ensemble cast and the film should make itself. Unfortunately, Rendition is riddled with stereotypes, one-dimensional characters and illogical, confusing plot twists. The film asks a lot of questions, both simple and complex, but doesn’t have the willingness to answer any of them. Despite some strong performances, Rendition is filmmaking devoid of purpose.


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