I missed this when it was in cinemas and just caught up with it on DVD. I’d wanted to see it mainly because it was Gavin Hood’s follow-up to the impressive Tsotsi and it was again set in Africa, albeit with some action in the US. My first thoughts are that the film is beautifully shot by the South African DoP Dion Beebe in CinemaScope with terrific lighting and convincing rendering of scenes shot in Morocco. According to the reviews, the US scenes are unconvincing because the Chicago scenes were shot in LA. I wouldn’t know about that, but in representing Africa, sound and image were very effectively handled (I liked the score and sound design).
The narrative involves an Egyptian-American chemical engineer stopped by the CIA on his return to the US and then shipped out to an unnamed North African country (‘extraordinary rendition’) where he can be tortured in order to get information about a terrorist group with which he has supposedly had contact. His heavily pregnant wife in the US then tries to find out what has happened whilst her husband is tortured by a local police chief, ‘observed’ by a stand-in CIA officer. The CIA agent in the country was killed in a suicide-bombing incident by the terrorist group in question and this is linked to a parallel story about the torturer and his daughter.
As a thriller, the film works pretty well, helped by the staging and assured editing (with an interesting twist in the presentation of narrative events). As a political statement, the film is impeccably ‘liberal’, but is loaded with possibly too much on the side of the victim to be convincing to an audience with any political nous. Still, it may shock less informed audiences who perhaps haven’t explored the issues – if they are prepared to think about what it all means.
My problems with the film stem from frustrations about the representations of the Arab ‘others’ in the film. On the whole, they receive screen time and good visual presence, but I found it annoying that only part of the Arabic dialogue is translated in subtitles (i.e. not the script in a scrapbook or chants at demonstrations). This has the effect of making them simply ‘terrorists’ without any real sense of why they are acting in this way (precisely the kind of nonsense that we got from Bush and Blair). I assume that we are meant to see this as an ‘unnamed country’ because it reflects badly on the rendition procedures, but I’d mistakenly taken the location to be Egypt and thought they were meant to be associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. If this isn’t the case, who are they? It’s a shame that they aren’t given real motivation (beyond vengeance directed at the police chief) because the actors were good, especially Yigal Naor (who appears to be Israeli and recently played Sadam Hussein on UK TV).
I have two suggestions as to how the film could have been more effective, although perhaps not multiplex fodder. One suggestion might be to beef up the CIA field analyst part played by Jake Gyllenhaal (i.e. the man who takes over and observes the torture) and to reduce the US stuff to the minimum necessary to make the point. I thought several times about The Quiet American and how a drama about this man and the family of the torturer might have been developed. My other suggestion is to stick to the script, but lose all the US stars who simply get in the way in this kind of film. Meryl Streep carries too much starpower and baggage from other films, Reese Witherspoon is wasted. With unknowns or lesser-knowns in these roles, the human story might have started to come through more strongly and we could concentrate on the roles rather than the star performances (I’m not against stars, but they aren’t needed in this kind of film). I think I probably need to see the film again as the narrative is quite complicated. I’m satisfied, however, that the plot does make sense despite what some reviewers have argued.
Overall, a watchable and interesting film with a script from a first time writer that has real potential, but in the end a disappointment that Gavin Hood, as an outsider in Hollywood, couldn’t match his technical skill with a better drama – and one that does justice to the African characters. Tsotsi proved he could do it, but now he seems to be lost to blockbusters with the next X-Men film on his work schedule. Another one bites the dust!