Jake Gyllenhaal, Reese Witherspoon, Fall Movies, "Important Films," and Oscar-bait
Everybody knows what a Message Picture is, even if they know it by a different name. Message Pictures are about a really important Social Issue that has the potential to tear society apart. The Social Issue is generally some horrible new outrage of The System. An Innocent Family Man is trampled on, crucified, and turned into a Christ Figure by the System. Outraged Citizens—who until Innocent Family Man was victimized lived blissfully unaware of the horrors done in their name to preserve the Status Quo—race against all odds to save Innocent Family Man from Injustice. The Establishment Figure rejects their pleas for Justice with maximum Arrogance and Indifference. Just when things are at their worst, the Outraged Citizens somehow find a way to appeal to the conscience of the General Public, and the Establishment Figure gets his/her comeuppance.
Message Pictures are done with the best of intentions: to raise awareness about said Social Issue in the General Public and to whip said Public into such a fury over said Issue that moviegoers all but storm out of the theater with pitchforks and torches to march down to the Capitol to overthrow the government. (Of course, what they really do is whip the audience into the fury for the duration of the movie, after which they...wander in a daze toward their car in the parking lot, drive home, and wonder what will be on TV when they get there).
They’re also done to win Oscars. By attaching their little movie to addressing a pressing Social Issue no one with a conscience could object to, the Message Picture wraps itself in the armor of goodwill and a guilty liberal conscience so that it’s critically bulletproof during awards season. The implicit appeal of these pictures to critics, audiences, and Academy voters is: “How can you not root for Message Picture to win an Oscar? Are you against Social Issue?”
The burning Social Issue that Rendition is all about is, well, rendition. More specifically, the U.S. government’s practice of “extraordinary rendition,” wherein high level terror suspects are taken off the grid, flown to a friendly country (to the U.S., not to the suspect) with more lax regulations on the use of torture, and interrogated for time-sensitive information. It was started during the Clinton administration and cooked to sinister perfection under Bush, and it’s repugnant and a black eye on the U.S.’s reputation as a force for good. It’s Totalitarian, police state type tactics put to use by the country that outwardly defines itself as being opposed to all things Totalitarian.
Rendition is one of several prestige movies about American involvement in the Middle East coming out this Fall (click here for an advanced review of The Kingdom , another such Fall film). The plot, in brief: an easy-on-the-eyes, Americanized Muslim played by Omar Metwally is renditioned to “North Africa” after a suicide bombing kills a CIA officer. Reese Witherspoon, playing his pregnant wife, goes to former college friend and current Congressional Aide Peter Sarsgaard to find information on where the hell he is. Meryl Streep plays a high-level administration official who orders the rendition and defends the practice by wrapping herself in an American flag and speaking with a patronizing Texas accent. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the CIA officer with a heart of gold designated to observe the torture of Metwally. There’s also a subplot about the suicide bomber and his girlfriend, who in typical movie logic is the daughter of the man who tortures Metwally. Kelley Sane is the writer, Gavin Hood is the director, and you can tell they spent a lot of time studying the work of Stephen Gaghan. Rendition is built on the same structure that Gaghan stumbled onto adapting Traffik for Steven Soderbergh and worked out to its logical endpoint in Syriana: Multiple, thematically-linked characters in disparate locations who, by the end of the movie, are connected in a way that makes us say, “Hey, we’re all affected by this social problem!”
Rendition, then, is a textbook Message Picture. And it’s a very well-crafted one at that. It’s well acted, competently written, and very capably directed. But like all Message Pictures, it’s totally airtight and DOA as a piece of living, breathing art. The Good Intentions and Important Message are hammered at you with typical Oscar-baiting Hollywood subtlety. There’s no room for the audience member to bring anything of their own to the movie. And it's definitely No Fun. Watching Rendition is like getting stuck in a conversation about politics with an overly earnest college student who stridently regurgitates every P.C. trope in the book and screams Bloody Murder if you try liven things up with an off-color remark or a sigh of resignation about the gigantic-ness of the social problem being addressed and the impossibility of solving it with a conversation like this.
It’s possible to imagine a Message Picture that simultaneously succeeds as a movie independent of it’s Good Intentions, but they are rare creatures indeed. Talented filmmakers (such as the afore-mentioned Steven Soderbergh in Traffic, or, say, Steven Spielberg in Amistad) take a stab at them every now and then as they try tuck an Oscar under their belt and assure their legacy with mainstream history. Almost inevitably, though, the filmmaker gets caught up in the Importance of the issue and forgets the wit and sense of humor they, as Talented Filmmakers, inevitably burned into the DNA of their great movies to bring them to life. I remember that multi-Oscar winner and mainstream critical darling Traffic came out the same year as Soderbergh’s all-style, no-“substance” The Limey. Guess which one I still watch every couple months? These prestige Message Pictures are often made with world-class craftsmanship (again, Traffic and Amistad leap to mind), and Rendition is, too. It’s well-cast, it’s very well-directed, and it’s intelligently-written. But craft does not equal art, and Rendition is missing whatever that key alchemical element is that makes a piece of art come to life.
Besides a flatness that is inevitable when a piece of entertainment is taking itself so seriously (and is not made by a total genius like, say, Ingmar Bergman), the main problem with Rendition (or most Message Pictures, for that matter) is that it’s kind of hard to imagine the audience it’s intended for. Any human being with a shred of decency would agree that kidnapping an innocent man, hiding him in a foreign country, torturing him for information he does not have, and telling his family that he does not exist is a bad thing. You don’t really need a “tough” two-hour movie to tell you that. The movie isn’t really enjoyable beyond the somewhat pleasing way it panders to your liberal conscience. Going to a movie isn’t going to stop the Bush administration from continuing with this practice: it’ll just make some money for the studio and hopefully pad Reese Witherspoon’s mantelpiece with another Oscar for her “brave” performance. So anybody who’s aware of the practice of extraordinary rendition doesn’t really need to see this movie.
Who does that leave in? I guess, for one, people who AGREE with extraordinary rendition. Unfortunately, there are people who think that extraordinary rendition can be justified in certain cases…but none of these crypto-fascists are likely to be swayed by a movie from “liberal” Hollywood.
That leaves people who don’t know extraordinary rendition is going on…and yet who are likely to go see an “important” movie like this. The size of this group is difficult to gauge. When Kelley Sane started writing the script, it was probably fairly big. But in the two or three years it’s taken for the project to go from concept to a theater near you, the abuses and excesses of the Bush administration are all-too-common knowledge. That’s the danger of making a Hollywood movie ripped straight from the headlines: the typical Hollywood movie takes three years to go from conception to theaters (if it's lucky), and if you’re trying to address specific things in the news, you’ll never be able get there fast enough.
But, okay, there are lots of people who totally ignore current events. The problem is, if you ignore the newspapers enough that you don’t know the Bush administration has been sponsoring torture in our name, it’s unlikely you’re the kind of person who’s going to see Rendition instead of License to Wed, or whatever Lowest Common Denominator film is playing at the multiplexes that weekend. I could be way off, here, and millions of ill-informed American “citizens” will see this movie, rise up in indignation, and put enough pressure on Congress to get Bush impeached. That’d be a case where I’d love to be wrong. But I have serious doubts that will turn out to be the case. So the question remains: Who is Rendition for?
Discuss this article on the forums! CC2K Co-Founder Robert J. Peterson invites you to support his sci-fi novel The Odds: Book One of the Deadblast Trilogy. It's a post-spocalyptic action-comedy that hearkens back to madcap movies like Big Trouble in Little China. Give it a look!