Friday, November 2, 2007

Rendition: A bleedin' heart liberal review

A British court decided today to fine London’s police force over a million dollars for shooting a twenty-seven year old Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes, 27 in a subway train, because they had erroneously identified him as a terrorist.

He wasn’t. They killed an innocent man and endangered countless others.

There are what can be called extenuating circumstances. If the police had itchy trigger fingers, it was because, only two weeks earlier, four suicide bombers killed themselves and fifty-two others on the subway. Tension was about as high as it could be.

Interesting to me is the fact that the court called the system the problem, rather than the individual cops. I think they got that right.

Now why can’t the United States get it right? I just saw Hollywood’s latest frontal attack on the Bush Administration – the film Rendition. Came home upset. No surprise there. Are there people who don’t get upset after watching lengthy scenes of torture?

I went to to see the range of takes on the movie, knowing that with something this controversial it would be impossible to untangle the political from the artistic. But I still found myself getting steamed over the number of critical reviews. Turns out lots of people thought it wasn’t hard at all to discuss the artistic and ignore the political. Or did that just mean they couldn’t see their own blinders?

Here’s the story: Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally, who played Ali in Munich) who immigrated at age 14 to the U.S. from Egypt, now lives in Chicago with his wife, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon), young son and mother. He goes to a conference in South Africa, and on his way home is pulled off a plane in Washington and “disappeared.”

His name is removed from the plane’s manifest, and all efforts on the part of his wife to locate him are in vain. He is flown to Morocco, but no charges are ever made and all traces of him are wiped clean. Isabella turns to an old boyfriend, Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard) now working for a Senator (Alan Arkin), who refuses to touch the case. Smith tracks responsibility for the disappearance to Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep) but ultimately surrenders to demands by his superiors to drop his efforts to help locate the missing man he knows to be innocent.

The other major character is Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is pressed into service in Morocco as American liaison to the torturers, despite his lack of experience (“This is my first torture,” he explains to Whitman when she presses him for quicker results) when the guy who was supposed to do the job gets killed.

A subplot involving Al-Qaeda operatives serves to provide motivation for the tortures.

I found the performances compelling. In this I am out of step with the majority of rottentomatoes reviewers. I found the story believable, many did not. I experienced the story politically, in other words, and because I felt the rage I knew the film would tap into, I assumed the artistic values were there. Else how would it have this power over me?

Clearly I was out of step with most reviewers. One reviewer, Michael Sragow of the Baltimore Sun, charged director Gavin Hood with “grab(bing) hold of a super-charged subject and squeez(ing) all the life out of it.” There’s worse, and in some cases, I have to assume their views were not being dictated by their politics. “Allegedly topical” Stephanie Zacharek of calls it. Allegedly? Man, what a cut from a friendly face. “A bust as persuasive drama” says Peter Travers of Rolling Stone.

Pity, methinks. Unlike some of the harshest critics, I found Meryl Streep’s cold-hearted bitch up to her usual standards; not as much fun by any means as The Devil Wears Prada, of course, but nonetheless powerful in her icy resistance to appeals. I disagree totally that there was something wrong with Jake Gyllenhaal playing his emotions entirely in his eyes; and I think anyone who suggests Metwally’s agony was “dull” needs their head examined. Heart too.

But OK, so I can’t build a strong case that this was the best of artistic attempts to handle a hot topic. I have to remain satisfied it was good enough to recommend anyway, even if you share the view that the topic carried the day more than the production as a whole. I hate to take this line, having made the anti-message movie pitch so often. I know there is no way to satisfy a viewer who hates any and all message movies. But yes, Rendition, is more like a Michael Moore documentary than most political movies – Munich, for example, or the George Clooney repertoire – Syriana, Good Night and Good Luck, or Michael Clayton.

So I'll cave on the art for now (and possibly come back to defend it another day). On to the politics. Rendition takes up the debate between those who argue the utilitarian ethical stance that the ends justify the means and those who argue that without practicing what we preach, the United States can only continue its nosedive from its once secure self-image as a morally superior Zion on a hill.

Whitman (the Meryl Streep character) is the voice of the neocons. Our methods, she informs, saved 7000 people in London. If we went a bit over the top in a couple cases to save 7000 people, are you going to tell me it wasn’t worth it? (One negative reviewer called all the lines soundbites. Watch this scene and decide for yourself.)

Freeman (Gyllenhaal) makes the case for the other side. Torture not only doesn’t work (never mind that in this case the man being tortured had no information to give); it is counterproductive because for every man tortured, thousands spring up to fight the system that imposes the torture.

What comes through the debate is an image of an America out of touch with its own humanity. A human approach would have involved getting to know the man turned over to the Moroccan torturers. Would have gone into the town and poked around among his family and friends. Would have formed a picture of his character. Instead, we have a bureaucrat making policy decisions on the basis of a theory – lifted out of the every day life of warm-blooded people – that rendition will work more effectively as an information gathering mechanism than a legal method would. And without taking the time to question the possibility that the evidence for his guilt (that phone calls were made from known terrorists to his cell phone) had an explanation other than their assumption of the worst. To say nothing of the possibility this kind of thing is just plain wrong.

As this film shows around the world, America’s friends will only shake their heads. America’s enemies (Latin Americans who laugh out loud when America talks about self-determination, for example) have no illusions. But here, with films like Rendition, the scales are falling from the eyes of America’s friends, including a whole lot of Americans. The film paints a picture of the world’s most powerful government at work. The people who make the world go round are cowardly, self-serving, arrogant and immoral.

Paul Tibbets died today. He was the pilot of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. He got all the way to 92 without ever doubting publicly that we did the right thing in dropping that bomb.

In today’s Buenos Aires daily, Página 12, is a report by one of its journalists, Santiago O’Donnell, of an interview he had a few years ago with Tibbets. According to O’Donnell, Tibbets told him, “I don’t like minorities, because there are more and more of them and they come and take work away from the gentiles. They are people who don’t defend this country in war. We have lost our balance, and today the balance is in favor of the blacks, the Mexicans and the Ethiopes… (Our enemies fear us because…) they envy us… I am afraid they will come if we let down our defences. Khadafi could attack us, even the Swiss could attack us… Everybody wants to attack us because we have more natural resources than any other country besides South Africa, which has uranium…There will never be true peace. Only the peace of fear. For that reason we have to carry a big stick.”


The ravings of a lunatic, right?

Well, no. Except for the ridiculousness (Ethiopes?) and racism of the rant what you have is the mainline view of the neocons running the ship of state – you know, those guys the democrats have not been able to knock of their perch.

What are Americans to do who take exception to torture and fearmongering? Who are pushing for international law. Who have not given up on the idea of a United Nations? Look at the alternatives, for Christ’s sake. We are still in thrawl to the neocons. People who, after all the astonishing failures of policy, speak openly of the possibility of war with Iran.

Where do we go to make the appeal against torture? We did what you’re supposed to; we went to the polls and voted for democrats. So?

So Hollywood gets in the act and makes movies about the way the U.S. has taken to practices we once saw only in Stalin’s gulags and SS interrogation rooms. And movie reviewers call the movie “over the top” and “dull” and “pandering to the left,” as if it is just another movie to review before moving on to the next.

I can take refuge in the thought that perhaps keener critics than I have the movie right. Not the best cinematic take on the issue of torture. Perhaps it is merely a third-rate movie. And shame on me for imagining it was good only because it catered to my leftie slant on the world.

A better one will come out, maybe. With better actors than Meryl Streep and Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon and Alan Arkin and then we’ll get the message.

That’s it.

Let’s wait for a better treatment of this theme.

Let’s wait. What else is playing?

Pagina 12 article by Santiago O'Donnell:

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