There’s an old educator’s saying that, to be an effective teacher, you have to make kids feel like they aren’t learning. It’s an idea that the filmmakers behind Rendition, the latest and most earnest entry in this fall’s long parade of war-on-terror themed prestige pictures, ought to spend some time considering. For despite a strong cast and slick look, Rendition never manages to make you forget that it exists not to entertain, but to deliver a moral lesson. It’s nice enough, in the way of a guest speaker brought in to lecture a middle-school class on a sensitive subject, but in the end, it plays too much like an overgrown, overproduced afterschool special for the Newsweek set.
Directed by Gavin Hood, who previously helmed the 2005 African-gangs film, Tsotsi, Rendition’s sole trick is to take a stilted political scenario involving off-the-books torture of terrorism suspects and play the “But what if it happened to you?” card. But even with the fairly brutal depictions of torture, it all unfolds in such a warm, clean, almost cozy, manner that it fails to be gripping or memorable. The overall lack of grit makes it too easy to digest and forget.
The film opens with a scene straight out of a Land’s End catalog: In a tree-lined upper-middle-class suburb, Isabella El-Ibrahimi (Reese Witherspoon) and her darling son, both layered in this fall’s most comfortable luxury cottons, kick a soccer ball across their leaf-covered front yard. In a movie like this, such a scene can mean only one thing: These innocent people will be victims, so ready your sympathies.
And, of course, that’s exactly what happens. After an overseas terrorist bombing kills an American, El-Ibrahimi’s husband Anwar (Omar Metwally) is abducted from a U.S. airport and shipped off to a foreign prison in north Africa on the orders of an icy, mean-spirited high-level government official played Meryl Streep. (The position is never named, but it seems to have jurisdiction over all activities relating to absurd and cartoonish caricatures of conservatives.) As this happens, Hood begins another plot thread about two young, star-crossed Muslim lovers. But this storyline seems irrelevant until the film’s finale, and then only because it is crammed into a needlessly out-of-order narrative. Mostly, the rest of the film concerns the various efforts to get El-Ibrahimi released, switching back and forth between the dank, dark torture dungeon overseen by an American official named Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) and the crisp, clean halls of power in D.C.
Ostensibly, the star of the film is Witherspoon, but her role is anorexically thin, and she does little to beef it up. In the second hour, Hood, clearly tiring from juggling so many disparate plotlines, resorts to cutting back to shots her sleeping in her hotel-room bed, lest we completely forget that Ms. Legally Blonde is even in the film.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing so perky as her famously ditzy Blonde persona. Witherspoon’s performance consists of a lot of slow, pained walking (her character is pregnant) and vaguely sad eyes staring up at those from whom she is seeking help. She does get to deliver an impassioned, dramatic yell — something along the lines of “Why oh why won’t you help me?” — toward the end, as if the filmmakers suddenly remembered they had an Academy Award-winning actress on their hands. But mostly she seems to sit in place and use various consumer telecommunications devices — landlines, cell phones, computers, fax machines — against pleasantly lit and furnished backdrops, resulting in the odd sense that she’s somehow stumbled into a Verizon commercial.
The other performers fare somewhat better. Peter Saarsgard plays a senator’s aide, and aside from the fact that his office is too clean (Hill staffers without any desk clutter are a pernicious myth), he’s fairly convincing — sly, slightly nerdy in that wonky Washington way, and both passionate and career-driven, resulting in a nice bit of turmoil between doing what’s right and what’s pragmatic. Jake Gyllenhaal manages an underhanded sort of magnetism that works despite (or maybe because of) the fact that he delivers nearly all of this lines as if just woken up from a long nap. Yigasi Nawal, a lumbering, bald oak of a man, who plays the foreign torturer, comes off like a fascinating mix of Daddy Warbucks and a mad Klingon general. Alan Arkin gives a fine, if brief, turn as a senator who cares more about his pet legislation than El-Ibrahimi’s plight. And Meryl Streep’s performance may be contrived, but it’s deliciously over-the-top, as if she’d modeled her right-wing nastycrat on a southern-accented Cruella DeVille.
It’s all competently produced, but, despite the unnecessarily knotty narrative structure, has only slightly more complexity than most juvenile fiction. Most of the points it scores are so obvious they barely need to be made, and none offer anything to chew on after the credits roll. Some will undoubtedly see left-wing Hollywood at work here, but, though mildly liberal in an extremely broad way, there’s almost nothing contentious to speak of. Of course torturing innocents is wrong, and of course no one would want it to happen to them, and of course elected leaders and government officials sometimes put politics first and individuals second. But when was any of this ever in dispute? And other than vague hopes of adding grist to the Oscar-contender mill, what possible rationale could there be for a movie, however dignified, that grounds itself in these notions without bothering to be particularly exciting or entertaining? Rendition gets a gold star for good intentions, but when it’s over, it’s tough to escape the sense that it all feels far too much like learning.