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« "Get in here and tell me all about it." | Main | Queer TIFF: "The Death and Life of John F. Donovan" »
Thursday
Sep132018

Months of Meryl: Rendition (2007)

John and Matthew are watching every single live-action film starring Meryl Streep.  

 

#37 —Corrine Whitman, the ruthless head of U.S. intelligence.

MATTHEW: If the one-two punch of A Prairie Home Companion and The Devil Wears Prada in 2006 represent a high-water mark for Meryl Streep then 2007 might very well be the single oddest year in the actress’ career. How else to explain Streep’s decision to accept secondary and even tertiary parts in four independent-to-midrange projects that not a single Streep enthusiast has ever had the inclination to hold up alongside her most acclaimed or memorable works? Streep spent part of the prior year accepting prizes for Prada and, most excitingly, playing one of the all-time greatest characters in theater history on the outdoor stage of the Delacorte. During that period, Streep also found time to dip her toes into the murky waters of post-9/11 cinema for a second time, following up her monstrous mommy in Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate with an equally vile political puppeteer...

A product of both the War on Terror and Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, Gavin Hood’s Rendition constructs an interwoven and international narrative centered around a suicide bombing in North Africa. In the aftermath, Anwar El-Ibrahami (Omar Metwally), an Egyptian-born engineer now living in Chicago with his wife (Reese Witherspoon) and son, is framed as a potential player in the attack. Upon returning to the states from a conference in South Africa, Anwar is apprehended, brought to North Africa, and systematically tortured for answers about his possible involvement.

Despite a weighty subject and discernible effort, Hood and screenwriter Kelley Sane cannot fully grasp the paranoiac, prejudicial culture they dramatize, proving that reflecting the world we live in isn’t the same as reckoning with it. Their forward momentum, their desire to craft a nail-biter merely shaped by current events, prevents both from taking the necessary time to analyze the political reality that beget this film. Hood, for his part, strives to construct a Soderberghian puzzle but he doesn’t possess Soderbergh’s stylistic sophistication, his narrative ingenuity, nor his adeptness with actors. Rendition is thus immune to ambiguity and can only paint its characters in the broadest strokes of black and white, which is why Jake Gyllenhaal, playing a CIA analyst who will later become a path-breaking white savior, registers as little more than a straight-faced cipher, while Witherspoon shrieks and clenches her jaw with undue intensity to salvage an underwritten role.

Streep’s Corrine Whitman, a flag-waving shot-caller in U.S. counter-terrorism, enters the film early on, jolted out of bed by a late-night call concerning the bombing. When her husband interjects about the inconvenience, Corrine retorts, “I’m sure they arranged it just to spite you,” a light Southern drawl detectable in her cold, flat tones, which will soon be employed to give the go-ahead to Anwar’s arrest and torture. The role is too peripheral for Streep to even attempt rewriting through subtle insinuation and physical detail, as she was able to do in Prada. Perhaps knowing that a sympathetic interpretation was totally out of the question here, Streep doubles down on the character’s crotchety disposition, free of the psychological shading that is the actress’ trademark. Streep rises to the occasion from time to time, as in a chilling back-and-forth with Peter Sarsgaard (playing a senator’s aide helping Witherspoon), in which Corinne cuts down this outspoken subordinate while never raising her voice above an authoritative whisper. She also turns a mean cold shoulder to Witherspoon while the latter begs to know her husband’s whereabouts…

But the trouble is that we’ve seen Streep hit all these marks and beats before — and with more cut-glass potency at that. Try as she might, she is unable to connect with the character’s core, as is usually the case with her villains. Miranda Priestly remains a towering exception to that rule, so why did Streep feel the need to follow up such a complex and captivating creation with this wan, cut-and-dried imitator?

Am I wrong in considering this undertaking a big ol’ waste of time?


 

JOHN: Ms. Whitman could potentially extradite me to a foreign country if I criticize her, but I’ll be a hero here and admit that Streep does a serviceable job with stale material. It’s always refreshing to see no-nonsense Streep petrifying costars with her icy demeanor and strategizing solutions with unflappable calm. Whether remarking on Gyllenhaal (“He looks twelve years old”) or telling J.K. Simmons, as Gyllenhaal’s handler, to stop laughing about matters of national security, Streep is harsh and biting in a way that is probably only sustainable in small doses, though it’s regrettable that the role is indeed so small, and that half of it is seemingly spent on the phone. I’ll also echo your praise of Streep’s scene with Sarsgaard at that swanky reception for orphans of the Rwandan genocide. Streep doesn’t stick out her neck to lionize this woman, but instead asks us, her liberal audience, to grapple with these tough decisions. “Honey, this is nasty business,” she tells Sarsgaard, informing him of a terrorist plot in London she intercepted via information obtained by torture. She continues, “So maybe you can put your head on your pillow and feel proud for saving one man while 7,000 perish. But I got grandkids in London, so I’m glad I’m doing this job, and you’re not.”

While we trek through the latter half of Streep’s filmography, assessing Streep’s choice of projects is nearly as pressing as evaluating her actual work on screen. I’m now simultaneously evaluating her work while considering the reasons behind her decision to, say, accept a minor cameo in Evening or feel the need to debase herself in Prime. Are such considerations merely fruitless stabs at psychologizing Streep the woman, naïve assumptions that Hollywood filmmakers can continually match the prodigious gifts of their actors? Or am I simply placing too heavy a burden on the collected works of The Greatest Actress of All Time? Maybe. Although such late-career duds as Dark Matter and Rendition aren’t easy sits, I’ve gleaned from them an essential understanding of Streep’s inclination towards play, as well as her retreat from the breathless praise and coronation she has enjoyed since the very beginning of her career.

Streep has often remarked that she envisions her roles as attempts to understand the headspace of women dissimilar from herself, caught in scenarios and making decisions she cannot immediately square or comprehend. Rationalizing the use of extrajudicial torture via a venal character presents an interesting, if truncated, chance for Streep to step completely outside her own politics and justify these heinous tactics in the name of, as Ms. Whitman would say, the greater good. To Streep’s credit, this is a supporting role I’d be interested in seeing her flesh out more fully, ideally with an entirely different set of filmmakers.

 

 

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Reader Comments (18)

I don't understand the role the reasoning or whatever Reese was doing.

September 13, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I've always been curious behind the backstory in this film. I've heard scuttlebutt before that implied that Meryl was the actress Peter Sarsgaard was referring to here: https://youtu.be/c6lOMsuCsBw?t=1m40s

If so, I would certainly understand why Meryl seemed so specifically flat in this role in a way that she usually isn't.

September 13, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterstarlit

I saw this movie and I don't even remember Streep's role!!!

September 13, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

I was disappointed in this film, and had much the same reaction that you describe in the article. I consider the subject matter to be very worthy and many good actors were involved but the film just didn't click into that next gear.
If I were to praise anything about Meryl Streep's performance and choice of material, I would praise her willingness to play the unlikable character. Many actors always want to be liked, or feel the need to give the film a happy ending. Streep is always willing to play the difficult person, and that is probably why she hasn't gotten stale.
starlit - interesting clip, Streep has worked with almost all of those actors, Sarsgaard, Firth, Cage, and Tucci.

September 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

I actually remember this role well, I think Meryl plays her bitch great.

September 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterYavor

Yeah, this was a very forgettable film. I don't remember much about that film at all other than it was boring.

September 13, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

I spent half of the movie trying to decide if she was channeling Hillary or Madeleine Albright

September 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I think 2007 was her absolute worst year ever:

2007 Lions for Lambs (Janine Roth)

2007 Rendition (Corrine Whitman)

2007 Evening (Lila Ross)

2007 Dark Matter (Joanna Silver)

It goes to show how generally lucky she has been, apart from this horrible year.

September 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ford

God please end this series.

September 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDebra

Debra, STFU! If you don't like it, just don't read it! Have some respect for the writers here!

September 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterLee

You shut up! I did less than 30 movies so I should get a special coverage next.

September 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDebra

If this keeps us from the excruciating failure of the Pfieffer series, let it be.

September 14, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterwingha

Imagine complaining about this series after the mess that followed that Kidman post.

September 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

^ The comments on these pieces are usually thoughtful and interesting - like starlit's link to that comment from Peter Sarsgaard, or Tom Ford's comment about Meryl's poor 2007. The one-by-one discussion of Meryl's films is a welcome respite from arguments about whether or not someone is the best actress of her generation (a completely subjective distinction regardless).

If you don't like this series, don't click on the pieces. No one is going to end it before the end of 2018, so asking that the site end it is pointless.

September 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Love this series and respect the huge undertaking . Keep it coming!

September 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

LOL. 2007 was Meryl’s “Nicole Kidman” year.

September 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJono

Keep up the great work that you are doing...

September 14, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

Eh, Dark Matter and Evening where pretty dull overall, but there are still way worse movies.
Rendition was from the director of the Oscar-Winning movie Tsotsi and Lion for Lambs from Oscar winner and her OOA-co star Robert Redford.
You can't really question Meryl's interest in these Projects at all. And she's quite good in both imo, esp. the upcoming Lion for Lambs.

September 15, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

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