Rendition, the Movie

Anyone interested in international affairs generally, and the criminal behaviour of some western governments in particular, ought to go and see the new American film Rendition, now on general release.

Nearly a year ago I wrote in this blog about the American practice of Extraordinary Rendition, the polite name for the CIA habit of kidnapping foreigners (including British citizens), usually in countries other than the US, and clandestinely flying them, blindfolded and shackled, to countries where torture is routinely practised and where the victim can be more, um, forcefully interrogated than would be prudent within the jurisdiction of the US courts — all this on the mere suspicion, sometimes later revealed to have been unfounded, of involvement with terrorism.  The whole thing is exhaustively chronicled and analysed, and the damning evidence set out, in the indispensable book Ghost Plane by the man who has done more than anyone else to expose this gruesome activity, Stephen Grey.  And it's made much more unpalatable still by the cogent evidence, some of it from leaked documents, that our own (British) government has knowingly connived at it.

Now comes the first film on the subject, appropriately entitled Rendition.  It's directed by the South African-born Gavin Hood (this seems to be South Africa's week) and stars the Meryl Streep in 'Rendition'always dependable Meryl Streep, here in a chilling role as the head CIA renditioner, with Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal (one of the gay shepherds in the seriously overrated Brokeback Mountain), and several equally excellent actors of middle eastern extraction.  'Anwar', the victim of rendition in the film, is an amalgam of real-life rendition victims, many of whose experiences are described in detail in Stephen Grey's book, so the main plot is disturbingly realistic.  The country in which the film's victim is interrogated under torture (and even the details of the torture used are well documented) is identified only as being in North Africa, but parts of the film were shot in Morocco and a document briefly shown mentions Tunisia:  however, we can take it that the location at least is fictitious.

There's no need to write a full review of the film here:  the Los Angeles Times, among many others, carried a very good one just three days ago when Rendition opened in the States, and I recommend it.   But British reviewers have in some cases been surprisingly lukewarm, on grounds that seem to me mistaken.  Peter Bradshaw, usually a perceptive and reliable critic, was grudging in his praise for the movie in the Guardian, but concluded on a harshly negative note:

But infuriatingly, the movie fudges the most important issue, with a fundamental flaw that goes to the heart of the matter: the question of whether the CIA's phone-record evidence against Anwar is sound or not. If it's all just a mistake, then how can such a mistake be made? The question is not satisfactorily answered, and the sleight-of-hand intended to distract you from this fact simply fails to work.

But surely this ambiguity, far from being a 'fundamental flaw', itself 'goes to the heart of the matter':  in so many of the cases of extraordinary rendition by the CIA, we have no way of knowing whether the CIA's 'evidence' against the terrorist 'suspect' is sound or not.  That evidence is virtually never tested in an impartial court of law, and the intense suffering and disruption of life inflicted on the victim may well be unjustified even on the most cynical and self-serving interpretations of the international law against torture.  We want to believe that Anwar, the rendition victim in the movie, is wholly innocent:  but we can never be one hundred per cent sure.  And that's more true to life than the definite acquittal for which Mr Bradshaw seems to hanker, an essentially more sentimental hankering than the film or real life can usually satisfy. 

The reviewers in last Friday's Newsnight Review (BBC 2 television) were similarly lukewarm, complaining that the sub-plot, which concerns the lives and relationships of the Arab families and associates of the principal local interrogator acting on behalf of the CIA, was unrealistically 'melodramatic'.  I must avoid a spoiler here, which might detract from the enjoyment of the film by those who haven't yet seen it, so it's enough to explain that the sub-plot describes the complex events surrounding a suicide bombing, its organisers and perpetrator and their relations with its main intended victim;  and all this is ingeniously tied in with the main plot (the rendition) by a surprise twist that to my mind comes off brilliantly.  To complain that such events are 'too melodramatic' is surely to complain that people in the real world whose lives are wrecked, one way or another, by terrorism are themselves involved in too much melodrama.  The complaint seems to reflect a certain squeamishness about recognising unpleasantness.  The film, by contrast, faces the unpleasantness with unflinching realism.  It's not always easy to watch, but it needs to be seen.

Stop Press:  First prize for the worst and most extraordinary British review goes to today's (London) Sunday Times . 'CL' (presumably Cosmo Landesman — indeed the Sunday Times website confirms his authorship) complains that Rendition

is too loaded against the practice of rendition to make it interesting

which is a bit like saying that a murder story is too heavily loaded against murder to make it exciting.  Comment is surely superfluous. 

"Maintain your rage," Gough Whitlam told the crowd outside the Australian parliament building in Canberra immediately after being unconstitutionally deposed as Australian Labor Party prime minister by a scheming Governor-General in 1975.  Half at least of the Australian people complied, maintaining their rage until the Governor-General went into exile — and beyond.  Watching Rendition, the movie, is a good way to maintain your rage against this ugly excrescence on the international scene.  And it's a first-class movie, too.

Tailpiece:  J. and I saw the film at a free preview for which tickets were provided to those responding to a newspaper advertisement.  The preview was at the Empire Leicester Square in London, where the floor of the auditorium is so inadequately raked that it was impossible for most of the audience to see over the heads of the people in front, restricting the view to the area of the screen between heads, and involving the need for constant swaying from side to side in the attempt to see round them.  Since much of the dialogue of Rendition is in Arabic with long English subtitles, and the screen, in the current fashion, is about a quarter of a mile wide, it was physically impossible to read all the subtitles, which certainly served to intensify the suspense by limiting one's comprehension of what was going on.  But as we hadn't paid to see the film, we could hardly complain.  We went on afterwards to a well-known restaurant in London's Chinatown, just behind the cinema, where at the end of our meal I was constrained to tell the head waiter, in what I hope was a moderate and amicable tone, that while the food had been terrible, the service had been worse.  (He laughed, I hope with embarrassment.)  It was indeed the worst Chinese food that we have ever encountered in many decades of eating Chinese in, probably, a score of different countries.  Still, the film was well worth seeing.  Please don't miss it.  But if you eat Chinese afterwards, it's prudent to stick to a restaurant that's in the current Good Food Guide.

Update (22 October 07):  Stephen Grey — now see his interesting comment below — points out in a private message that he has referred to the film Rendition in a longer piece in the New Statesman about the developing story of Extraordinary Rendition and the way even our MPs conspire with the British government to pretend that it doesn't exist because the Americans deny that they practise or condone torture.


9 Responses

  1. Stephen Grey says:


    I thought the ambiguity left over the prisoner's innocence was one of the best things about the film; after all, the reality is not black and white. CIA officers don't render people in the belief they are innocent.  They honestly think they are terrorists.  In the real world, so little evidence against terror suspects is made public (since so few are brought to trial) that the main accusation against someone is essentially to have been accused of being a terrorist. That's all most people have to go on.  (And it produces an indelible stain on a character.) The practical ethical and tactical question for those who do have the raw intelligence is – does rendition work and is it justified when you have someone the intelligence indicates may be a terrorist?  I thought the film captured that dilemma well.

    As a movie, I'm not sure the film works entirely (so many characters that none seem to get really well established). But it's a serious attempt at the subject and my only main factual gripe is that the film depicts CIA officers directly witnessing, ,and thereby legally taking part in, the torture in foreign countries. This is not only unrealistic but it rather misses the point.  Rendition achieves an outsourcing whereby we can reap intelligence from rough allies while closing our eyes to what happens next.  (Not being in the room allows worse things to happen than if we were there.)  Torture victims in the war on terror rarely also have their blinds removed so they can see who is inflicting their wounds.  They live in a world of strange noises and lights and sleep deprivation (and are sometimes drugged with narcotics).  So in some ways the world of rendition is more 'fantastic' (to use a word Solzhenitsyn applied to the Soviet gulag), more dream-like and uncertain, than this fictional film depicts.



    Brian writes:  I'm grateful to Stephen, who (as I said in my post above) has exposed, and probably knows, more about 'rendition' than anyone else, for this penetrating assessment of a thought-provoking and important film which also provides high quality entertainment.  His key point about the inaccuracy and misleading implications of having the CIA officer physically present at the scenes of torture seems to have been generally missed by other critics and commentators.  I suppose the director's defence would be that the CIA presence at what is by any standards a crime, as portrayed in the film, is necessary to give solid reality to the CIA's and America's complicity in that crime, and to pre-empt the weasel excuse that the US authorities can't know whether torture has been used to extract the information sought, because no American was present at the interrogation.  But clearly Stephen makes a sound and crucial point in highlighting this important misrepresentation. 

    Another, longer, but also highly perceptive review of Rendition, by Philip French, appeared in yesterday's Observer Review.  It concludes:

    Rendition does not avoid clichés and the ending is a trifle pat, but it thrills, holds the attention, knows its way around and generally respects the audience by leaving us to exercise our moral judgments on what we see being done on our behalf. Despite the fact that most of the cast only meet two or three of their fellow actors, it comes over as an ensemble piece with no single grandstanding performance, which is to the credit of the writer and director.

    As Jean Renoir says in his La Regle du Jeu: 'The terrible thing about this world is that everyone has his reasons.' Rendition touches on the tragedy behind that profound statement.

    That, read with Stephen Grey's expert summary above, seems to me a just and penetrating verdict. 

  2. john says:

    "Rendition" has not been released in Australia but is obviously an important film and your comments are interesting and sound correct. As it happens, when they were posted I was reading Stephen Grey’s article in the October edition of Le Monde Diplomatique on the plight of Reza Afsherzadegan the London computer student, the interrogations in Somalia and Ethiopia, and the fate of Abu Omar, the Egyptian kidnapped in Italy. Although there are no longer CIA gaols in Europe Grey says that the policy of rendition continues because "the US is uncomfortable with the idea of proving guilt or innocence in a court of law" and that "it still believes itself [to be] in a state of war", " a point constantly missed by analysts in Europe".

    It will be interesting to see the film – and hopefully the end of rendition as a policy in 2009.

  3. Louise Barder says:

    I saw Rendition last night. I found it harrowing, terrifying and moving.

    It occurred to me during the movie that Jake Gyllenhaal's character seemed 'out of place' or unlikely; I think I was guessing, based on nothing but a hunch, what Stephen Grey explains above: that Americans wouldn't be present at an interrogation. However, from a movie director's point of view, I think the character was necessary to provide an emotional and 'empathetic' link and contrast – especially for the benefit of Western viewers – between Anwar's life in the US (an innocent suburban idyll) and his predicament in North Africa (a hellish nightmare). Without the Gyllenhaal character, the film would have been disjointed and emotionally disconnected – lacking something common to, linking, and reminding Anwar of both his worlds, and the viewer would have been more alienated from Anwar and his experience. Gyllenhaal personified our – the viewer's – eyes and ears, and gave our voyeurism a greater depth and humanity. That's my take on it, anyway.

    Brian writes:  I think this comment does make a convincing case for the director's device of having the Gyllenhaal character (the CIA officer with a conscience) present at the interrogation (i.e. torture) sessions, even though, as Stephen Grey points out, this is a significant departure from reality. 

  4. Bob says:

    nb:  This comment includes a 'spoiler' (reveals how parts of the film end).  If you haven't seen the film and want to enjoy its suspense, skip this comment. 

    A bit late in the day I want to add a few observations I think no one else has made. Louise, above, rightly says that the Jake Gyllenhaal character, Douglas Freeman, served to link the two worlds of Anwar. Yes, but he was required to do a bit more than that under director Hood's elastic artistic licence. He was actually the key to the film's dénouement – or at least to the American half of it. First he was allowed to witness the violence and gruesome water-boarding inflicted on the blindfolded prisoner ( impossible in the real world, says Stephen Grey). This was clearly intended by the director to provoke in him a revulsion deep enough to justify the next stage in the drama – Freeman actually engineering Anwar's escape, coolly lying about it to the Gorgonesque Streep, and securing Anwar's return to a happy homecoming in Chicago.  An excessive stretch of directorial licence, we might reasonably have thought , just to secure what at first looked like a too-sugary American ending? But the film was based – however loosely – on the real case of Maher Arar, a Canadian engineer of Syrian birth who, like Anwar, was snatched whilst changing planes (at Kennedy airport), flown to Syria and tortured for a year before being released without charge. So why have none of the critics above mentioned this? I didn't know about Arar's case when I saw the film, and consequently thought the return home a disappointingly twee cop-out!  Citing the film's source wouldn't have spoilt the film in any way for those who hadn't seen it .

    Also why did no one mention the 'revelations' that spilled out of Anwar when he 'cracked'? The names of his co-conspirators he gave his torturers were those of the 1990 Egyptian Football team….!   A subtle and powerful reminder of the quality of most information obtained under torture. (Seen in the subtitles, Brian – which you probably missed, given your seating arrangements!)

    Brian writes:  Thanks for this, Bob.   I have followed convention and added a spoiler warning to precede your comment. 

    Yes, we did pick up the point about the Egyptian football team, which cunningly re-opened the question whether 'Anwar' was in fact innocent, question still not wholly resolved at the end of the film (in my opinion, anyway).  I'm not sure though whether I agree that "most" information obtained under torture is bogus, as you suggest.  The experience of Resistance fighters in occupied Europe during the second world war, and of British agents infiltrated into occupied Europe to support the Resistance, seems to indicate that when such people are caught and skilfully tortured, in many (most?) cases they will eventually crack and reveal the names of Resistance comrades and their plans.  States that practise (or out-source) torture would hardly go to so much trouble with it if the resulting information was "mostly" worthless.   But it's certainly the case that where information has been obtained by torture, the fact that many torture victims will say whatever they think will stop the torture, whether it's genuine or invented, has to be taken into account in assessing the reliability of the information gleaned.  In many cases this is fairly easily done by seeking independent corroboration.   But obviously there's no possible moral or indeed legal justification for torture in any circumstances.

  5. Bob says:

    Can't agree with you about information obtained under torture! WW2, the Resistance and the secrets agents, etc, you cite are 70 years ago, and although in those days torture was certainly used mainly to extract information, since then it has broadened its CV dramatically to  become an agent of repression, humiliation and downright degradation. Think of Winston Smith being made to look at himself in the mirror, bent and wrecked from his electric-shock torture. .. and that was 60 years ago. Why did O'Brien have him tortured ? Absolutely not to get information; rather to subjugate him totally. And finally to make him betray Julia. People like JAC Brown have written books about the purposes of torture being far removed from the simple extraction of information it once was – being now rather to crush any spirit of opposition, rebellion, etc.  Brian, I cede to your undoubted experience in considering the value of information extracted under torture in your work at SIAC (?). But do you really think the hunt for information is all there is to it? How many men are there in Guantanamo? 800? And what do they really know? On the other hand think what a useful bit of 'turning' might be achieved  with a bit of up-to-date mind-cleansing…. But we'd have to look to Clive Stafford Smith for whatever facts there are on that.  

    Brian writes:  My comment related solely to your own remark about 'most' information obtained by torture being useless.  I entirely agree about the other purposes for which torture is used, but that's not really relevant to the narrow question of the usefulness or lack of it of information, if any, extracted by torture.  (My experience as a member of SIAC didn't in fact have any bearing on torture.) 

  6. Bob says:

    I think it’s entirely relevant. Certainly the initial purpose of most torture is to obtain information, but that’s just the first part of the continuum torture has become. Beyond a certain point it must be pretty clear to the ‘technicians’ ( even after such  ‘corroboration’ as is possible, given the disparate nature of those who seem to end up in CIA prisons) that the victim knows nothing  – and starts to recite the names of football teams, for example – i.e misinformation?  Then what comes next? Release for a few, the crushing of minds, spirits and bodies for the rest ‘pour encourager les autres’? (Including the sexual humiliation of strict Moslems, perhaps?).  How much do terrorists trained in separate ‘cells’  probably know about each other? What can they possibly reveal that can be ‘independently corroborated’ as you suggest ( even generously assuming that the majority who are captured, sold to the CIA for $1000, or otherwise end up with hoods over their heads have anything at all to do with terrorism) ? Not a lot, I bet. To be tautological about it, ‘information’ is ipso facto always useful. I’m just saying that for my money what pours out of the screaming mouths of torture victims after a relatively short time – i.e most of it – is not information.

    PS. Sorry about the ‘spoiler’ if anybody hasn’t yet seen the film. I’ve just never regarded this blog as a source of film previews – rather of debate and argument. In fact I imagined I was one of the last to see Rendition and didn’t give it a thought.

  1. 21 October, 2007

    […] Ephems of BLB wrote an interesting post today on Rendition, the MovieHere’s a quick excerptRendition, the Movie October 21st, 2007 (No comments yet) Anyone interested in international … , and the damning evidence set out, in the indispensable book Ghost Plane by the man who has done … , many of whose experiences are described in detail in Stephen Grey’s book, so the main plot […]

  2. 21 October, 2007

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  3. 30 October, 2007

    […] Rendition, the movie October 30th, 2007 A very interesting article by Brian Barder on this new movie about the practice of extraordinary rendition, and also read Stephen Grey’s comment on Barder’s article, and follow the link to his own article in the New Statesman. […]