*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Torture to us is an abstraction, as is the Global War on Terror and the
use of "Extraordinary Rendition" the focus of this film. It takes the
dramatic arts to bring a simulacrum of these concepts, these events, to
those who will never experience them.
The paradox of such an endeavor is that no matter how horrible the actual experience is, the film must be broadly something we call entertainment. It must leave the viewer with something other than despair over the human condition. The writers must give us something to feel hopeful about, affirm some belief that individuals can rise above the institutionalized forces that smother courageous impulse.
It is George W. Bush's America that is the evil entity in this film, epitomized by the beloved Merril Streep playing the CIA official who orders the rendition. The casting was no accident. Streep used her dramatic skills, and more, to illustrate that American evil shall not be made into a caricature, that this is a film to contemplate long after the final scene.
We are brought into the cycle of hatred and violence between fundamental Islam and Western hegemony by the magical acting and cinematography. At any point you can stop the wheel and have the illusion of locating the the agent of terror, of discerning the good guys from the bad. But it is only an illusion, as there is infinite regress of pain and retribution that justifies any depredation, at least to the one who is imparting it.
Two dramatic threads are interwoven in this film, in a way that I will not divulge. One shows the deadly politics of Egypt, punctuated by suicide bombs and torture. The other shows the high stakes politics of America, where death comes in the form of a lost Senate election, or being fired from an influential Capital Hill job. Both rang eerily true.
The hero that this film needs to get people to buy the tickets that pay the bills for making this film, is a made of the same "right stuff" as thousands of such cinema heroes. This CIA agent's actions, his strengths, his character is a part of the American myth, that in different forms we must perpetuate to sell tickets to movies and to support our wars.
As he was about to put his career on the line, his phone call was not to his President, or his lawyer, it was to The Washington Post. It echoed the same call made by Robert Redford in "Three Days of the Condor" to blow the whistle on his fictional villain in high places.
We are supposed to imagine that today's Washington Post would have the courage to expose malfeasance without waiting a year in deference to the Administrations exhortation to protect national security. We are asked to believe that George W. Bush's Whitehouse has the same deference to the press as Carter's.
This was after all a work of fiction. So, it is fine that the hero was brave and there was a powerful force for good that transcended all that has gone wrong in this country during the last years. The film is well crafted and enlightening. But don't get too much pleasure out of the happy ending, since that part was from a different time and a different country.
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