What’s a nice girl like Reese Witherspoon doing mixed up with government-sanctioned kidnapping and torture?
“I think it’s really easy to think about (awful) things in the abstract,” says the Oscar-winning actress of her role in the new movie Rendition, “but when you have an emotional, human experience that connects you to the people affected by these things, it can really change your perception about whether or not they’re … ethical? Constitutional? Certainly it raises awareness about (extraordinary) rendition and whether or not it is those things.”
Despite looking a little tired on another day of publicity at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel, she appears every inch the gracious, well-mannered woman of Southern upbringing she is reputed to be. Witherspoon shot to the top of the box office rankings with her two “Legally Blonde” films (in which she played Elle Woods) and a handful of romantic comedies that polished her all-American-girl image. Not to be pigeonholed, however, she followed those with her widely lauded turn as June Carter in the drama about Johnny Cash, Walk the Line. Defying social expectations of women has been a theme of the Nashville native’s life and career.
“Listen, there’s sort of an interesting influence of pretending, as a woman, that you’re not very smart,” says Witherspoon. “There’s a lot of young women who aren’t valued for their intelligence and what they’ve achieved; they’re valued for what they wear and they’re rewarded for behaving poorly. As a mother I have to see how my daughter might be influenced by those things and hopefully guide her in a different direction.
“I was telling her there are countries where women don’t get to vote, don’t get an education. I think it’s very important to understand the very short history of civil liberties that we have. It’s important in order to maintain them.”
Still, the dark recesses of America’s war on terror, where one expects more Jack Bauers to lurk than Elle Woodses, might seem an unlikely place to find Witherspoon.
“She is America’s sweetheart in a rooted way; there’s no pretension. She’s a very grounded person. She’s not a tabloid babe,” said director Gavin Hood, an Oscar winner for Tsotsi. “I very much wanted (Rendition) to be seen by many people because the questions it raises are worthy of debate. She’s someone people can connect with, and on top of that she’s a very fine actress. It’s a very difficult role to play; you could spend the whole time wringing your hands and weeping. Reese brought a grounded determination to find out what happened.
“The questions of the film are being debated in a sort of rarefied, academic way that separates them from average people; they feel removed from it. But the truth is it happens to real people who have families. I think the casting of Reese will drive home for Americans the real effects of this policy on people with families.”
In the practice of “extraordinary rendition,” begun in the Clinton administration, suspected terrorists are spirited by the CIA to secret locations on foreign soil, where due process and protections from physical and mental excruciation are presumed not to apply. The Bush administration has denied the use of torture as recently as this month, although it has also attempted to redefine the term to exclude such practices as subjecting detainees to freezing temperatures and simulated drowning.
Some experts claim that the Bush administration has “rendered” hundreds of terrorism suspects. Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif has acknowledged assisting in 60 to 70 such abductions from 2001 to 2005 alone.
Steven Watt, a staff attorney with the Human Rights Program of the American Civil Liberties Union, has been involved in all seven cases brought by subjects of rendition against the U.S. government. Watt says that, despite some detainments lasting years, not a single rendered subject has yet been brought to trial by the government.
“During presentations (in 2002), I’d ask the room who had heard of extraordinary rendition – two or three hands would go up,” said Watt. “But I was in Anchorage this year and did the same thing, and most people knew. So I think there’s a growing awareness of the issue. I’m hoping this movie is going to catch the attention of folks that wouldn’t otherwise think about it.”
“It’s difficult for people who are going about their daily business, taking care of their kids; I don’t blame them for not knowing,” said Hood. “That’s why you want to make a film. It’s now being talked about on talk shows. I think this fundamentally challenges what America is based on.”
Witherspoon said, “I was particularly moved by one case of a man who had been rendered and interrogated and tortured and released. … He wasn’t trying for financial reparations. He wasn’t suing the government for money, he just wanted an apology. And they wouldn’t give it to him. And I thought, ‘This is about dignity and disrespect and humility.’ ”
“Rendition” attempts to humanize the issue by putting a family’s faces on one case, but it also explores decisions to use such tactics, as well as following the development of a terrorist.
“The interesting thing about this film is that you do have to see the side of it where people are having to make extraordinary decisions – whether it be about creating policy that prevents terrorism, or devising tactics that hopefully keep people safe,” says the actress. “To be in the positions of those people, I can’t imagine. But also the idea that things are going on that aren’t constitutional, it’s pretty impossible to believe. But they are.
“I’m still trying to make films I want to see, films that I have a good time making and that I feel like my children will like [or] eventually they’ll understand it and like it. I do have a focus to create roles for women that are responsible and accurate and reflect what modern women are dealing with.
“My grandmother was a big influence on my life. I spent every day with her after school. She would pick up my brother and I and do our homework with us. She really was a big reader; she inspired me. I read so much as a child. She would read to me and encourage me to read independently. She also was extraordinarily smart and very well educated; she just didn’t have as many opportunities to work. There weren’t that many opportunities for women at the time, especially in the South. She was a schoolteacher for a while and then she had children and it wasn’t really practical for her to be working. She just came up against a lot of the social codes of the time and they prevented her from excelling in the ways that I think she really always wanted to.”
Source: The San Francisco Chronicle