Fearmongering, Hollywood-style

Fear is a very real and motivating force in the lives of Americans. If the color on the rainbow chart of terror alert changes, we think twice about flying. A bomb goes off in the London Underground, and suddenly London and Kabul become indistinguishable. President George W. Bush and crew have long been criticized for their use of fearmongering tactics to coerce and manipulate the American people to the point that shampoo is now considered a mortal threat to national security. Old news, right? What’s new is that these same tactics are being employed by Bill O’Reilly’s arch-nemesis: liberal Hollywood.

“Rendition,” a new film starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Reese Witherspoon and Meryl Streep, attempts to expose the American government’s alleged practice of extraordinary rendition. As explained in the film (or in any news forum, if you are awake) rendition is what the U.S. government calls their program of sequestering terrorism suspects away in prisons outside of the United States, so as not to be held liable to those pesky constitutional standards.

Witherspoon plays her signature all-American girl role as the beleaguered and pregnant wife of Anwar El-Ibrahimi, the target of the film’s extraordinary rendition operation. His rendition is ordered based on the fact that he was born in Egypt and that he received a couple of missed calls from a known terrorist. As it turns out, “they must have had the wrong number” is not a reasonable explanation when it comes to homeland security.

Soon enough, Anwar is quietly moved to a prison in North Africa – although I was surprised the location didn’t just read “Somewhere in the Middle East.” The audience later discovers from a document that the movie is supposed to take place in Tunis, but for the majority of the movie I was distracted by geography. Presumably the location was left unclear for a reason, to convince the audience that in any insecure location there could be an American torture operation at work (or sects of angry young marginalized men looking to wreak some havoc).

Reese Witherspoon did what she could with a negligible character. Gyllenhaal plays a moody and anxious CIA agent, who is described in a bit of clever dialogue as joining up to the agency on Sept. 12, 2001. He is not sure if he approves of what is being done to Anwar, but he is too slack-jawed and bleary-eyed to act. By the time signs of life actually do appear in his character, the audience is only left wondering about why he didn’t do anything before.

“Rendition” also introduces several new actors to the American screen. Chief among them is the Israeli actor Yigal Naor, who convincingly plays the lead interrogator of the prison. Naor plays this character with subtlety and nuance, for he is both cruel and sympathetic at the same time.

The objectable part of this film was not the subject matter but the manner in which it was addressed. It was as if director Gavin Hood took a page from right out of the neocon playbook, hammering the notion that rendition can and will happen to you and those you love, right down the audience’s throat. It is original subject matter, handled in an unoriginal and ultimately somewhat disappointing way.

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