The War on Terror has become a movie genre.
Terrorism is one of our greatest crises, a defining debate and our primary source of paranoia, so it follows that film dramas and thrillers would address it in some way. At this point, enough films relating to the War on Terror have been made that we can start calling them by that name.
While the topic has already produced several very good movies (this is my latest reminder that you should see "A Mighty Heart"), they do put audiences and, in my case, critics in a difficult spot since it’s nearly impossible to separate the politics from the moviemaking.
This week’s example is "Rendition," in which Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), who was born in Egypt but has lived in the U.S. for 20 years, is taken into federal custody at an airport upon returning from South Africa. In an instant, American intelligence makes him disappear.
His pregnant wife, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon), must ask old boyfriend and current senator’s aide Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard) for help.
Meanwhile, the Muslim police chief of a North African city, Abasi Fawal (Yigal Naor), has been the target of terrorists and is currently dealing with a headstrong daughter (Zineb Oukach) who is dating a boy who associates with terrorists.
The two storylines converge when Anwar is taken to a secret prison where Fawal and CIA analyst Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) interrogate him using means that some define as torture and others define as necessary.
Think of this film as "Syriana" with a heart. "Rendition" addresses many sides of terrorism and the fight against it: eavesdropping, secret prisons and torture, the role of elected government officials versus those of the covert CIA and how extremists recruit and use young Muslim men as weapons.
What it does as well as any War on Terror movie thus far is make us care about the characters. There are few clear-cut villains. Even CIA agent Corinne Whitman (Meryl Streep), who orders Anwar’s interrogation, is given a monologue arguing persuasively that the "nasty business" of torture is necessary to save lives.
Nor does the movie slip into melodrama. The writing is good, the direction is outstanding and the acting is first rate.
But here are two other criteria by which to judge War on Terror movies.
First, does the film treat the topic with due respect? There are no easy solutions to any facet of terrorism. The ideologies that drive it, the ethics of wiretapping and torture versus our need to defend ourselves ... these are too complex for the tidy formulas most Hollywood movies follow.
"The Kingdom," for example, fails mostly because it attempts to apply a standard action movie formula to those issues. "Rendition" passes that test.
Second, does the film accurately represent both terrorists and Americans (the standard opposition in War on Terror movies)? Unfortunately, "Rendition" also passes that test. Real terrorists are as cruel as those in the movie, and the United States does engage in rendition and brutal interrogation tactics. Even if you think the latter is justified, that opinion should at least be the result of extensive thought.
And that, above all else, is the effect of "Rendition." It doesn’t tell you exactly what you should think, but it will force you to do some thinking about one of the most significant issues of this century. That is worth the price of admission.
Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.