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Rendition and the Modern Issue Film in an Era of High Broderism

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There are several things you might expect a review of  Gavin
Hood's new film href="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0804522/">Rendition, out
today, to begin with. Perhaps a discussion of Reese Witherspoon's
first role since 2005's Walk The Line; maybe a mention of how
it is the first piece of popular culture to really deal with Bush-era
torture; maybe even an overall verdict on the efficacy of the film as
a political thriller. I'm going to begin with a discussion of High
Broderism. Allow me to explain.

If you're a regular blog reader, chances are you're familiar with the
term High
Broderism
. However, if you're not so fortunate, allow me to
provide a working definition:

Main Entry: High Bro•der•is•m

Pronunciation: \hahy-broh-der-iz-uh m\

Function: noun

1 : a blogospheric catch-all term for the sort of laziness in our
political culture which declares "a pox on both their houses"
regardless of context, always holds that two sides in any political
conflict must be equally at fault and equally extremist, and the
center is wherever the middle distance is between two political
opponents, regardless of their actual policy prescriptions. See: href="http://unity08.com/">Unity 08.

The actual phenomenon being described by the term is a rather
pervasive one, with a whole array of nasty effects on our discourse.
However, maybe the nastiest effect is that the following statement
might be reasonably assumed by progressives, based on harsh
experience, to be a preamble to a most noxious bout of HB: "There
exist, in our world, political issues that require true nuance and
shades of gray, in which all major sides have at least one legitimate
argument in their favor." Statements like this are usually followed by
something along the lines, "which is why I don't understand why, for
the good of the great centrist middle, Republicans and Democrats can't
work together and arrive at a consensus decision on..."

I'll leave the reasons this is an inane analysis to the countless
great writers who've covered it in depth. What I'd like to talk about
is not why this is a politically inanity, but why it is a moral
absurdity: just as mature people acknowledge there are issues which
truly entail shades of gray, we also need to acknowledge, as a
necessary flip-side, that there are also debates where to say there
are shades of gray is to misunderstand the discussion entirely and not
grasp that one side is factually correct and the other side is simply
wrong, that debate in this context is a purely academic exercise.

This is not an extremist tact, but a simple observation - let's look
at climate change, perhaps the purest recent example of such a case.
It's simply not accurate to say that the debate on climate change in
this country has been one between href="http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2007/1/2/131839/3289">those
offering excessively market-oriented solutions, and those offering
economy-destroying shifts with no regard to pragmatic reality -
the debate in this country has been between those who refuse to
acknowledge anthropogenic global warming, and those who just plain
acknowledge it is happening and is an emergency, regardless of their
suggested course of action. One group has the data on its side - the
other does not. It is only fairly recently that debates between
environmental groups such as Friends Of The Earth and Environmental
Defense even
approached the level of relevance
, given the need to overcome the
skeptic vs. believer debate.

If climate change has the best claim to being the apotheosis of this
phenomenon, then the Bush administration's use of torture to extract
information is likely the second best. Granted, there are a few
serious thinkers who believe that the use of torture is not
categorically unacceptable (e.g. Sam Harris, Alan Dershowitz), but the
case for the href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maher_Arar">Bush-style of torture
as doctrine has been reduced to such thin gruel that it must be
relegated to the same category of 'resolved' as the climate change
'debate.' We know that it href="http://www.alternet.org/rights/28585/">endangers our
security, provides href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A2302-2005Jan11.html">false
information almost without fail, href="http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=20051219&s=sullivan121905">erodes
our moral authority, is indefensible from a href="http://www.qando.net/details.aspx?Entry=1878">conservative
perspective and a href="http://www.reason.com/news/show/120853.html">libertarian
perspective alike, all before we get to progressive arguments
about human rights. Just as climate change skepticism is now limited
to the domain of die-hard apologists such as Dennis Prager and Rush
Limbaugh, it's rare that someone outside of a Malkin-like level of
credibility seriously attempts to defend the policy status quo. This
is not some budgetary line-item disagreement where we can effectively
scold each other to see the other side - there is a correct
interpretation here.

Rendition gets this to a truly surprising degree, and for that
reason alone it is a minor miracle. It is a competently made (if not
spectacular) political thriller about an Egyptian-born family man who
is torn away from his DC-based family and interrogated on tenuous
grounds for a terrorist attack he had nothing to do with, and in its
clear, unapologetic stance, it's very much a throwback to the issue
films of the 1970's such as Norma Rae and The China
Syndrome
, films unabashed about being full-throated morality
plays.

Now our issue films tell us otherwise. "These are complex issues," the
modern issue film is supposed to say as it gives us an entirely
simplistic us vs. them set-up presented as complexity, "so to
editorialize, or even betray an opinion, is to be simple-minded."
Rendition more or less understands the environment in which
it's being released and bucks this cinematic broderism at every turn,
and if for only that, progressives should give it a modicum of
respect.



At its core, Rendition is a very simple story (which,
considering its foreign-to-too-many subject matter, is probably for
the best.) Or, rather, two stories - that of a husband, Anwar
El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), an Egyptian-born, NYU-educated family man
living with his several-months-pregnant wife, Isabelle (Reese
Witherspoon) in a DC suburb, with a five-year-old son in tow.
Rendition opens with all the trappings of a disaster movie in
setting us its protagonists - we establish the family man, good-guy
nature of Anwar as he calls his from  a business trip in South
Africa, and is put on the phone with his 5-year-old son. The child's
first words? "Did you get me something!?" Oh, for joy...

(For further discussion: How different is the family man torn from his
family on a business trip in the modern disaster movie to the family
man torn from his family on the front in a WWII-era war film? It's
sort of the opposite dynamic, no? In a modern disaster movie, if a
main male character has a family to live for, we can safely bet our
life savings that he'll survive through the
volcano/earthquake/comet/ice age with them as a motivator, but if a
main male character is in an old-timey war film and has a wife waiting
for him at home, especially one with a little one on the way, he is
virtually guaranteed to be blown away before the next reel. But I
digress.)

But before Anwar can join them at home, he is taken by mysterious
agents at the airport terminal and shuffled away to a secret
dungeon-like holding area in an unnamed country to be tortured for
information, in a process overseen by a CIA lackey Doug Freeman (Jake
Gyllenhaal) hastily promoted as his partner died in a recent terror
attack, and the head of the secret prison, Abasi Fawal (Igal Naor).
His phone, y'see, supposedly was called by an Egyptian-born
co-conspirator in a recent terror attack, and with him being an
Egytian-born chemical engineer, Abasi suggests, well...it leads one to
wonder. Without spoiling anything from the second half of the film,
Anwar has no idea why he's been taken from his family, endures awful
bodily harm, and his fate, good or bad, is dependent almost entirely
on forces beyond his own control.

The wife's story is not much more dynamic: she waits for him. And
waits. Then she calls upon an old flame (Stellan Skaasgard) who works
for an influential Senator (Alan Arkin), hoping he might able to help
her. Skaasgard's character has to investage, which means she has to
wait. And so on. In fact, for a film supposedly focused on these two
characters, it's somewhat amazing how little action they actually
take. There are some shifts of focus to Gyllenhaal's character, as he
develops a sort of miniature moral crisis about the torture he's
effectively endorsing with his presence, but most of the time is
spent, with one big exception I'll get to in a bit, on this couple,
waiting for alleviation of their physical and/or psychological
torment. In essence, we have two intercut short films here, each
about...waiting. The dramatic possibilities here, for obvious reasons,
would seem limited.

And yet.

And yet, it somehow manages, just barely, to hold together and work as
a compelling thriller.

Mostly because we don't notice how little actually, y'know, happened,
until after we've left the theater - we're too caught up in the
intense sense of dread and foreboding atmosphere, an atmosphere that
is somewhat reminiscent of Michael Haneke's minor classic href="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0119167/">Funny Games.
Hood slowly builds by letting us suspect this story will not end well,
with a sort of hopelessness uncommon for a studio film. Which brings
us to the strongest card in Rendition's deck - it manages in
this way to both be honest and thrilling. The scenes of torture are a
good illustrative example of this; they manage to be appropriately
horrifying without once seeming exploitative, primarily because Hood
never seems to be going for the easy way out, for the money shot. Each
cringe on behalf of us as audience members, each shudder, is earned
the hard way - through forcing our imagination to see the image Hood
comes oh-so-close to providing and then yanks away before it hits our
eyes.  The film features one of the most disturbing shots I've
seen in any film this decade - we cut, in media res, to Ibrahami just
screaming like a banshee, not out of any physical pain, but at what
his eyes hint is a true realization of the nature of his dilemma with
all of its weight, a week ago a suburbanite dad, now stuck in a
torture room in a foreign country for reasons he doesn't know. It is
horrific, but more than that it is morally shaming in a way that feels
organic. The merciless camera, which refuses to turn away, does us far
more psychic damage than an over-the-top glance at blood and guts ever
could.

Rendition is also one of those films where, no matter how much
you might appreciate it, you can sense as you're watching it what the
likely criticisms will be:

1. Hopelessly one-sided - doesn't look at both sides of the
issue.
See above.

2. The characters here are paper-thin. This is more or less
correct, but I disagree as to how much it matters in this context -
this is not a film that aims at character study, but one that wishes
you to invest enough in its characters to be able to find it emotionally
affecting during the short shelf-life of the viewing itself, and by
standard it more or less works, largely thanks to the fine work here,
particularly by Withrspoon and Metwally.

3. This film's pacing is all muddled. Agreed 100%, and here is
where we get to the big exception I mentioned earlier.

Throughout the film, we cut from the main action we're concerned with
to the family life of the Abasi, whose daughter has been missing and
is suspected to have left home to live with a local vagabond, much
disapproved of by the parents. These take up a good 25 minutes or so
of the film, 25 minutes which somehow manage to feel both too
melodramatic and too distant. All of this is leading to a quasi-twist
at the end - without spoiling anything, I'll simply reveal that there
is an attempt at href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperlink_cinema">hyperlink
cinema here which goes awry. Apart from our lack of emotional
investment, the late-in-the-game stab at messily drawing so many
threads together threatens to topple the film under its own weight. As
mentioned before, this film's story is a simple one - it is stunningly
asymmetrical to demand towards the end that we imbue it with such
universality.

But by this stage, Rendition has made its point. As a film
experience, it is a modest but not immaterial accomplishment - a
compelling, if strikingly uneven, political thriller. As a statement,
Rendition has considerably more value - an unabashed advocacy
film at a time where it is not just unhip to do so, but the age of
Broder has made it downright impolitic.

Hopefully the latter gets more attention than the former.