Friday, August 29, 2008

Traitor: Issues of faith

Traitor (2008) • View trailer for Traitor
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence, brief profanity and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.29.08
Buy DVD: Traitor • Buy Blu-Ray: Traitor [Blu-ray]

Espionage thrillers have become quite distressing.

Heinous terrorist acts aren't really all that new; all the way back in 1977, the film adaptation of Thomas Harris' Black Sunday was a nail- biting race to derail a plan to detonate an explosives-laden blimp hovering over the annual Super Bowl game.
The quietly honorable Samir Horn (Don Cheadle, left) has trouble explaining
his point of view, let alone his behavior, to a shadowy CIA contractor (Jeff
Daniels) who tends to favor ruthless "solutions" to any perceived problem.

Even so, the landscape has changed in these uneasy early years of the 21st century. Whereas previous fictitious plots — suggested, as they often were, by real-world events — generally involved lone crackpots, single assassins or at worst a small group of dedicated killers, today's politically charged action flicks often focus upon the legions of religiously brainwashed Islamic fanatics who've replaced skinheads and covert Nazis as the reflexive villains of choice.

And, let's face it, a plot to have 50 bomb-toting true believers detonate their explosives — while riding 50 buses filled with average folks taking random journeys across the great American heartland — feels a little too possible to be dismissed as sheer screenwriter's fantasy.

But writer/director Jeffrey Nachmanoff's Traitor takes awhile to get that far. In the meanwhile, we're given a fascinating character study of a former U.S. special-ops agent gone rogue: a man given quite persuasive substance thanks to another of star Don Cheadle's immaculately layered performances.

To say that Samir Horn (Cheadle) is complex would be the gravest of understatements; although devout enough to carefully unroll a carpet and pray even when in prison, Samir is introduced while on a mission in Yemen, as he supplies explosives to Islamic terrorists quite prepared to use them. And not just the explosives themselves, but the knowledge required to design foolproof bombs.

"I can prevent you from blowing yourselves up," he explains, somewhat mordantly adding, "unintentionally, anyway."

The quip does not go over well with Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui), an Islamic "patriot" who doesn't trust Samir for a second. His suspicions seem well-founded when their meeting is interrupted by local soldiers — the good guys — assisted by visiting counter-terrorism FBI agents Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Max Archer (Neal McDonough).

As it happens, Clayton and Archer have been trailing Samir for quite some time; Clayton believes their quarry opportunistic but not a radical ... in other words, somebody who could be "turned" toward U.S. interests. Samir surprises them; even the threat of an almost certain death in a Yemeni prison does not bring a flicker to the almost sadly analytical gaze he turns on Clayton.

If anything, the offer seems to insult him, and further harden the as-yet-undisclosed resolve that dictates his actions.

Circumstance and prison alliances eventually bond Samir with Omar; the two discover a mutual interest in chess and a willingness to debate Allah's plans for the world, and the best way to implement them. Omar behaves like a loyal soldier who trusts a superior's interpretation of the Quran; Samir insists on a scholar's need to be sure that the holy book's passages aren't transformed into hatred-fueled dogma.

The philosophical debates are both enlightening and disturbing. Clearly, Samir does not wish to compromise his faith; he spends the entire film trying not to act against his beliefs, while forever faced with situations that demand he do just that. I was reminded of the escalating moral crisis that confronted Eric Bana's Avner in 2005's Munich, as that righteous Jewish man grew convinced he was becoming just as bad as the Nazi killers he sought and targeted for assassination.

The plot demands that Samir and Omar escape from prison, of course; with the assistance of a clandestine money man — Fareed, quite chillingly played by Aly Khan — they wind up in the United States, where the aforementioned plot involving 50 bombs takes shape.

For their part, Clayton and Archer seem hopelessly far behind.

By this point, Nachmanoff's film has become one of clever parallel structure: the growing bond between Samir and Omar, as compared to the comfortable working relationship between Clayton and Archer; the ongoing American intelligence briefings that are contrasted with the training of long-buried Islamic "moles" who entered our country on student visas.

Nachmanoff also lands a few perceptive jabs, starting with the inter-departmental squabbling and rivalry that (for example) prevents the FBI and CIA from more freely sharing their intelligence. As seasoned street veterans, Clayton and Archer haven't the patience for such games, but they utterly consume the shadowy Carter (Jeff Daniels), a veteran CIA contractor who reveals nothing to anybody.

The absence of backstory or character development, when it comes to Carter, is a problem; Daniels deserves better, and so do we. He operates at the fringes of this story, inserted only when Nachmanoff wishes to surprise us, which he does more than once. But Carter's involvement somehow seems contrived and, in the final analysis, superfluous ... as if Nachmanoff concocted the character solely to be this narrative's "mysterious CIA spook."

Fortunately, we've no shortage of strong actors. Cheadle makes Samir a man haunted by demons: certain of his actions but forever questioning the belief structure that fuels them. Despite these horrific circumstances, Cheadle projects wisdom; his sad eyes and troubled gaze make us want to like and trust him, even as we fear his submission to the dark side of his faith.

Pearce, long an underrated actor, is a strong match. Clayton also is a rigorously intelligent man, the first in a line of Baptist ministers to embrace a calling other than the church. But his faith-based background is both helpful and necessary to his current task, as he comes to appreciate that Samir — and those like him — often have (to them) valid reasons for their behavior.

Or, as a minor character insists, during an interview with the FBI man, if Clayton doesn't believe in God, then he'll never understand somebody like Samir.

McDonough's Archer is the impatient member of the FBI pair, invariably too quick with a smart-assed quip. The role is something of a cliché, but the always engaging McDonough — love that smugly cynical grin! — makes the archetype his own, and somehow turns the character into something fresh.

Taghmaoui's Omar is disturbingly credible: the seemingly rational face of fanaticism, and a persuasive mentor who we easily believe capable of mesmerizing recruits.

The plot is driven by too much coincidence, particularly in the third act, but by then we're solidly hooked by the building suspense and the duality of Samir's behavior.

The production credits are mostly top-notch, although the bombing of an American Embassy in Nice is an off-camera cheat followed by a decidedly unconvincing process shot. The Yemeni prison sequence, along with the time spent in various parts of Canada and the United States, feel much more authentic.

Mark Kilian's score is serviceable but not memorable; he sets an appropriate mood, but his music isn't used with much imagination by Nachmanoff.

The intriguing character study aside, you'll likely leave Traitor with the unhappy suspicion that these events aren't far-fetched enough. Not every contemporary thriller also functions as a cautionary tale, but this one does ... and I certainly hope the right people are paying attention.

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