Hand-wringing is all wrong for the War on Terror. When Spielberg made Munich we saw just how far good-intentions go (no-where). Good movies are drama, yet somehow movies about the most dramatic events of our times seem anti-drama; opposed to strong emotions (unless stultifying boredom counts). It’s as if directors think drama will leave them open to accusations of sensationalism; that they’ll risk trivializing things by seizing on the inherent drama of events. So instead we get “contemplative” dramas like Rendition, where everything that should be dramatic is not, and boredom reigns.
In the aftermath of a bomb attack in Egypt, a chemical engineer (Omar Metwally) en-route home to Chicago is picked-up for questioning by the CIA. Unable to elicit answers from Metwally on American soil, chief spy Meryl Streep orders an extraordinary rendition of the suspect to Egypt, where he can be tortured freely and (it is supposed) confess to his wrongdoing. Unhappily for Streep, Reese Witherspoon is Metwally’s wife, and Jake Gyllenhaal is supervising the torture sessions.
Movie stars don’t automatically undermine serious intent on the part of a film-maker, but sometimes… Jake Gyllenhaal just isn’t right for a part. Gyllenhaal is abysmal in Rendition and for “abysmal” you should “ABYSMAL”. Hot-shot CIA analyst this man isn’t. Not here, at least. Gyllenhaal galumphs through the movie like Action Man on Mogadon. He even looks like he’s made of plastic. The idea this man would command a game of Battleships is far-fetched, let alone putting him in charge of a high-profile interrogation. He wakes up, in one scene, to an empty whisky bottle and a pack of cigarettes, and you think: “why are you sleeping in Michael Douglas’s bed?” Gyllenhaal is still a bit grad-student-like to convince in tales of moral turpitude. He’s smart alright, but you don’t see him holding down a job.
Reese Witherspoon, on the other hand, is a job-holder – to look at her. That perkiness she had in her early roles is developing nicely into steely, Sally Field-like resolve. She’s still about ninety per cent EYES when you look at her, but there’s nothing wrong with that if an actress wants to convey Hope, Despair, Love, Hate and all the rest that’s going to nab her a second Oscar (Walk the Line bagged her her first). Reese plays the wife and mother role in Rendition with good grace, given she only gets one good scene (when she confronts Streep with “Just tell me he’s OKAY!!”). The thing that hampers her isn’t what she does with her screen-time, it’s how little screen-time she’s granted. Rendition has so many plot-threads at times it’s as if the writer wanted a mini-series and settled for a series pilot.
Meryl Streep… well, she’s Meryl Streep: what do you expect? A movie would have to be a lot crummier than Rendition to intrude on the acting talents of The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Streep plays her role as Wicked Queen of Central Intelligence with prudent spite and velvet-cloaked steel. She is something tough amidst the lachrymose moralizing that characterizes most of Rendition, and the audience registers her stoicism like a pinch of salt in a bowl of oatmeal.
For a movie about kidnap and torture to bore an audience, a director has to something extra-specially wrong. Spielberg did it in Munich, and Gavin Hood does it Rendition: they waffle. Munich and Rendition cry out to be terse, but instead they are told with parentheses – they wander from their stories. Every time Rendition should have you gripped, its hand is on your shoulder (or else you’re asleep). Scene after scene it’s like the hands fall off the clock. When directors run from drama, they aren’t directing; they’re molly-coddling. Here is a subject – if ever there was subject – where emotions should run high. Screw restraint.