After the high-octane actioner The Kingdom earlier this month, now we get the more subdued, darker side of the war on terror with Rendition. Picking up on one of the most disgraceful aspects of America’s current counter-terrorism strategy, it is an overdue high-profile bit of publicity for an aspect of the current war that has received far too little attention from both press and public alike.
For those who don’t know, extraordinary rendition is the sanitising term given to the alleged cross-border kidnappings of terrorist suspects by the American intelligence agencies. Much like the unfortunate terrorist suspects who have been locked up, often in solitary confinement and subjected to low-level psychological torture, for the last six years in Guantanamo Bay, the suspects subjected to extraordinary rendition find themselves picked up and whisked off to detention in a foreign land.
So secretive is rendition that even an in-depth and high-profile investigation by an independent European Union team, interviewing countless alleged participants and hunting through innumerable records, managed to find nothing more than strong circumstantial evidence that rendition even exists. The British government – heavily implicated as at best a facilitator, at worst an active participant – repeatedly denied involvement before eventually backtracking and letting slip that it had some idea that, well… something was going on, but still maintains that it doesn’t know quite what.
To add to the problem, the difference between those in Guantanamo Bay and those captured via rendition is that those “rendered” overseas have allegedly been illegally taken by the CIA from allies of the United States – including a number of Western European states. The allegation against the US government is that those “rendered” overseas are being taken to secret bases to be tortured into confessing their supposed crimes – and, most worryingly of all, unlike with Guantanamo Bay and the Abu Ghraib abuses, the US government continues to deny the very existence of either those who have apparently been kidnapped in this way, or of the flights transporting them from country to country in contravention of international law. It is a situation reminiscent of the “disappearances” of the latin American dictatorships of the 1970s, or of Stalin’s Russia during the purges, yet it is supposedly happening today, organised by the land of the free.
All of which is doubtless a bit heavy for a Friday night popcorn movie, yet the very presence of this film is an indication that Hollywood is breaking out of its previously self-censoring shell. Where for the first few years of the war on terror the studios ignored the world’s current problems, seemingly for fear of being dubbed “unpatriotic”, now there is a glut of critical war on terror movies on the way, often with such big names attached, as with Rendition’s stars Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep and Alan Arkin.
Yet though the publicity for the dirty side of the war on terror is welcome to opponents of current tactics, this particular Hollywood take seems somehow to be a tad too glossy for such a grim subject. Instead, it is the far lower-key independent British production Extraordinary Rendition, unsurprisingly dealing with the same subject matter and recently well received at the Edinburgh and Locarno film festivals, that has been garnering the praise for its far more character-driven approach. Because where Rendition may have been timely four years ago, now it tells us nothing that we don’t already know. The publicity is welcome, but with Bush soon to be out of the White House it has come too late to be of any use.