Reese Witherspoon Escapes the Perky Curse

Running Time 120 minutes
Written by Kelley Sane
Directed by Gavin Hood
Starring Reese Witherspoon, Meryl Streep, Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard and Alan Arkin

Powerful, shocking and mandatory, Rendition is a disturbing film that should be required viewing for every school and civic group in America, and then the world. They could start at the White House.

The unfortunate title so confused everyone at the recent Toronto International Film Festival that we all started calling it “the Reese Witherspoon” movie. With so many one-word titles like Revolution, Restoration, Resurrection and Redacted, how do you keep them all straight? Well, Rendition should be easy. It’s in the paper every day, because it refers to the onerous U.S. policy of “extraordinary rendition” that allows the government to arrest and imprison, without explanation or legal representation, any person suspected of terrorist activity, regardless of proof of guilt or innocence. This could mean a man wearing a turban, a sophomore at Princeton, or you. Worse, the Bush gang has expanded this power, enforced by the C.I.A., to extradite all alleged terrorists in custody to secret prisons in other countries to be tortured without legal constraints. This is what happens in Rendition, and it should give every American nightmares.

Directed by Gavin Hood, the South African whose film Tsotsi won the 2006 Oscar for best foreign-language film, this timely political thriller stars Reese Witherspoon, Meryl Streep, Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard and Alan Arkin in an urgent examination of the abuses justified in the name of post-9/11 hysteria. Witherspoon, in the best acting job of her career, plays Isabella, an eight-months-pregnant Chicago housewife married to Anwar El-Ibrahimi (the excellent newcomer Omar Metwalley), a handsome, Egyptian-born American chemical engineer attending a conference in Cape Town, who disappears on a flight home, gets kidnapped in the Washington, D.C., airport, and is rerouted to an underground detention cell in the Middle East. Frantic, Isabella appeals to an old college friend (Sarsgaard), who works as a right-hand assistant to a U.S. senator (Arkin, in one of his most sobering roles). The government claims Anwar never entered the U.S., but his credit card bills indicate he bought $70 worth of duty-free goods aboard the plane from Johannesburg.

Meanwhile, a suicide bomb in Morocco kills a mob of people, including a C.I.A. operative who is replaced by an inexperienced rookie, Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), from the accounting department. Reluctantly, he finds himself nervously assigned to observing a prisoner suspected in the attack because of his knowledge of chemicals. This man is, of course, Anwar, and it’s not long before Freeman questions the inhuman tactics. Why, he asks, is a tax-paying American college graduate who has lived in the U.S. for 20 years suddenly arrested on a whim, blindfolded, stripped naked and thrown into a black hole, exposed to extreme heat and cold, blinded by glaring light, beaten unconscious on a daily basis, denied medication and subjected to a technique called “waterboarding”, a sort of simulated drowning that can burst the lungs. Wincing from the brutality, stirred by the knowledge that his bosses at the C.I.A. can do anything they want with no regard for a prisoner’s moral, civil or legal rights, and conflicted by the fact that he joined the C.I.A. the day after 9/11 for patriotic reasons only to become disillusioned by the corruption he witnessed, Freeman begins to distrust his own government. He also knows that people who are tortured long enough will eventually say anything to make the torture stop. When Anwar confesses and names his co-conspirators, Freeman rushes to the computer and Googles them. The “terrorists” turn out to be the members of the Chicago Cubs.

Meryl Streep is chilling as the C.I.A. official who writes the interrogation policy that determines the cruel, degrading, inhuman treatment and punishment of terrorist suspects, blatantly ignoring the fact that it defiles the U.S. Constitution and degrades the law. A cold cookie with a frozen smile, perfect stocking seams and the eyes of a reptile, her big confrontation with Witherspoon at a Washington reception has the temperature of refrigerated steel. Equally persuasive are Mr. Sarsgaard, an idealist who wants to go public, and Mr. Arkin, a senator who plays both sides of the aisle, depending on whichever team is in the catbird seat at the moment, hiding behind fears that talking to the press might jeopardize the National Security policy. Withdrawing his support for career reasons and the fear of being called a “bin Laden lover,” he’s an all-too-familiar reminder of what stinks in Congress. Ms. Witherspoon, bold and courageous and mature, makes you wonder who the ditzy blonde in Legally Blonde could possibly have been. But it is Omar Metwally, the innocent prisoner nearly destroyed by his own country’s despicable crimes against humanity, who will haunt you the most. Bloodied, starved, confused and bewildered, he embodies the fate of victims of state power, and the film demands our vigilance in keeping that force in check. The clever narrative structure that blends the events on two separate continents will keep you riveted.

Hot off the headlines, this is one timely thriller that delivers its message with a huge punch and no heavy speechifying. The marvelous script by Kelley Sane juggles the dense plot, violent action, political intrigue and liberal anti-Bush sentiments with unnerving force. Responding to international outrage as recently as Oct. 7, 2007, President Bush was still insisting that Americans do not torture people and that Congress has been fully briefed on his detention policies. Both statements were just so much snake oil. Rendition tells you why, and you go away shattered. Reese Witherspoon Escapes the Perky Curse