The aftereffects of the Sept. 11 attacks continue to linger in both the real world and the fictional ones created by Hollywood. 2007 witnessed a considerable spike in the number of films willing to wade into thorny issues stemming from everything from the war in Iraq to the American intelligence community's conduct at home and abroad. The range of films were of varying quality and clarity (in terms of getting a message out) but perhaps most surprising was the fact that, by and large, moviegoers stayed away in droves, making works like In the Valley of Elah or Redacted box office flops.
Director Gavin Hood, following his electrifying 2005 breakthrough Tsotsi, fell victim to audience indifference as well, as his grim, angry polemic Rendition came and went with hardly any notice. It's a film, written by Kelley Sane, that feels a bit diffuse with its myriad characters and shifting narrative, but can't seem to shake its righteous fury long enough to connect with the story it's telling. It's a bit like Crash goes to Guantanamo Bay, as the turbulent world of geopolitical intrigue is uncomfortably welded to intimate, domestic drama.
Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), an Egyptian-American, is on his way home to wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) and son Jeremy (Aramis Knight), when he's detained by American officials en route from South Africa to Chicago. Thus begins his hellish nightmare, being trapped in North Africa and enduring first-hand "extraordinary rendition," a controversial and unseemly practice that entails shadow agents of various governments relying on torture to secure information. Swept up in Anwar's ordeal is analyst Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) and steely senator Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep), both of whom want vastly different outcomes from Anwar's brutal interrogation. Parallel to this narrative runs that of Abasi Fawal (Yigal Naor), a high-level North African government operative whose personal and professional lives are more deeply entwined than he thinks.
All that exposition and I haven't even touched on the several other layers that make up the fantastically busy Rendition; I kept thinking throughout the film that it would be so much more compelling if the filmmakers would simply let the key stories breathe. But in order to drive home their point -- these insidious government practices have impact far beyond those spirited away from their lives -- Rendition must breathlessly leap between plotlines, stitching madly away in hopes that the finale comes together flawlessly.
But it ultimately does not -- there are plenty of astonishing performances (Metwally, Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard, in particular) but the biggest problem with Rendition is that it stifles the drama. Just as anything notable or pulse-quickening transpires, Hood cuts away, letting the audience catch its breath, but also slowly loosening the film's grip. It's frustrating and continues throughout the entire film. Unfortunately, while the subject matter is certainly timely and grimly fascinating, Rendition is less than the sum of its parts.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is immaculate, with no dirt or damage to be seen. It's a recently filmed production, so detail is sharp, colors are vivid and the overall image is spectacularly crisp, even during the numerous nighttime sequences. If there are any flaws, I didn't see them pop up in any noticeable way.
With a couple action sequences and some blood-chilling "interrogation" scenes, Rendition's Dolby Digital 5.1 has a few opportunities to shine, and does so. The dialogue is heard clearly, with no distortion or drop-out, while the score and sound effects fill in to subtle effect. An optional Dolby 2.0 track is on board, as are optional English and Spanish subtitles.
Few in number, but worthwhile, Rendition's bonus features are appropriately somber. Gavin Hood contributes an amiable, informative commentary track, touching on visual elements and the project's origins. The 27 minute, 38 second documentary "Outlawed: Extraordinary Rendition, Torture and Disappearances in the 'War on Terror'," directed by Gillian Caldwell independently of the feature film production is presented in fullscreen and aims to put a human face on this mysterious practice. The 30 minute, five second featurette "Intersections: The Making of Rendition" (presented in anamorphic widescreen) is standard behind-the-scenes fare, with the film's theatrical trailer, presented in anamorphic widescreen, completing the disc.
Director Gavin Hood, following his electrifying 2005 breakthrough Tsotsi, fell victim to audience indifference as well, as his grim, angry polemic Rendition came and went with hardly any notice. It's a film, written by Kelley Sane, that feels a bit diffuse with its myriad characters and shifting narrative, but can't seem to shake its righteous fury long enough to connect with the story it's telling. Performances from Omar Metwally, Jake Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard are noteworthy, but that's about it. Recommended, but only barely.