Hollywood has decided that it’s okay to make movies about terror but, based on the two that are now in the theaters, the powers that be in Tinseltown haven’t decided whether they should be honestly thought-provoking or just politically correct. They have decided, though, that things go better when things blow up. “The Kingdom” started with a suicide bombing in Saudi Arabia and soon “Rendition” will give us another one in a faux-Arab country — both complete with high body counts, senseless death to innocents and the potential trade-offs in the decisions to seek justice or revenge.
Rendition refers to a process in which a suspected terrorist is forcibly taken to another country for questioning, and it’s one of the rare hot-button political issues that probably doesn’t get enough press. Critics have called it “torture by proxy,” and that’s exactly the position the film takes. Anwar El-Ibrahim is an Egyptian chemical engineer living in Washington D.C. with his pregnant wife. (Casting Reese Witherspoon off-type was a bold move, but since she still looks and acts like a Southern belle you never quite believe her in the role.) Before you can say “extraordinary rendition,” he’s being waterboarded in a secret prison after being kidnapped by the feds in an airport. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the CIA analyst who’s tortured by the thought of torturing an innocent man, and his heavy conscience seems to be meant to serve as a proxy for the viewer’s.
The Defending Champion
Somewhere along the way, the writers of “The Kingdom” must’ve gotten really confused. I don’t know how it happened, but the end result feels like the scripts for “Syriana” and “Die Hard” were loaded into a shotgun and fired… and then the film was made from whatever flaming scraps of paper were still legible. The film deals with the aftermath of a suicide bombing on an American-owned oil compound in Saudi Arabia. Hundreds of Americans are killed, but the FBI is hamstrung by bureaucracy. As a result, Foxx, Garner and co. decide to take matters into their own hands as they befriend the token Saudi good cop in an attempt to find the bomber responsible for the attacks. Explosions and really loud gunfire ensue.
In a horrifying scene during “The Kingdom,” an American is about to be beheaded on camera. Then, suddenly, Jennifer Garner tussles with the hulking terrorist with the sword, ending him with a bite in the cranium that would’ve made Jack Bauer proud. Immediately afterwards, everyone started shifting nervously and looking at the people sitting next to them, as if to voice the unspoken question, “Should I cheer?” In a “Die Hard” style movie, the conclusion would be self-evident. But “The Kingdom” purports to depict a realistic geopolitical situation, which makes the histrionic action sequences feel out of place. Eventually the entire theater did decide on a good hearty cheer for the Americans, but I can attest to how awkward it felt. “Rendition,” on the other hand, goes in the exact opposite direction, settling on a blank and neutral tone that makes engaging with the characters a difficult proposition. And of course it doesn’t help that Anwar is so clearly innocent – throwing that into question would’ve allowed the film to focus in on the morality of the issue regardless of the circumstance.
There’s an old chestnut about political movies which holds that Hollywood is always one war behind. Well, no longer. This new breed of cinema is tackling stories taken right from the headlines, something that hasn’t really ever been done before. But there’s a tricky balance to be reached when dealing with contemporary issues – too political and it stops being cinematic, too cinematic and it stops being political. “The Kingdom” never can decide what it wants to be, leading to moments of audience confusion like the one I described. “Rendition” emerges bruised and bloody from a torturous bout in the ring… but only just.