Film Reviews

TRAITOR

By • Aug 24th, 2008 •

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IS HE…OR ISN’T HE?

And that is the question-whether or not our hero (Cheadle) is an FBI undercover operative or a Muslim activist in cahoots with the enemy. In this fast-paced spy thriller – albeit sporadically flawed in execution -you’re never quite sure till the very end.

The Problem: They could have used 24’s Jack Bauer as a role model. To paraphrase the Bard (actually Olivier’s intro to Hamlet): this is the story of a film that could not make up its mind. As written by the director and Steve Martin, TRAITOR seems to be in a genre limbo, caught somewhere between an action pic and personal odyssey.

But getting there is half the fun, as Cheadle’s character, Samir Horn, traverses both worlds. And en route, for a welcome change, we’re given some insight into the elemental mind-set of the terrorists…as in “Is he a devout Muslim?” “I don’t think there’s a sliding scale.” No one is shown to be all black. Or white.

Plot: Samir, a Yemeni-born America citizen (who as a kid watched his father killed by a terrorist’s car bomb) seems to be playing both sides in this post 9/11 dick flick. Now an adult, he globe-trots on a whirlwind multi-national tour ostensibly aiding an Islamist terrorist cell intent on inflicting chaos on the West. And since he’s always seen at the site of bloody massacres, FBI agent Clayton (Pearce), the Inspector Javert of the chase, stalks him through 3 continents, determined to catch him at all costs.

When Samir finds himself in prison, he’s befriended by Arab militant Omar (Taghmaoui), becomes his confident and trusted ally; and when they escape (in an improbably simplistic way) he’s included in the high-tech planning and execution of world-wide jihads. You know the drill: suicide bombings of embassies and killing infidels wherever they can be found. There’s lots of that.

But the worst is set for last. In a horrific plot against the U.S., Omar & cohorts plan to blow up 50 buses all across America at the same time. As he explains: “For years we’ve been planting martyrs in their midst.” (Not to worry. No spoilers here. You’ll just have to see for yourself.)

The good news: Cheadle (CRASH; HOTEL RWANDA) treads almost wistfully through the part, gaining our respect and empathy as the soft-spoken cipher. (i.e. In conversation with Omar, he plaintively states “I don’t feel at home anywhere.”)

Pearce (MEMENTO; L.A. CONFIDENTIAL) convincingly plays against type as a hard-nosed G-Man (with a Ph.D in Arabic Studies) on the prowl. McDonough (MINORITY REPORT), as his callous confederate, ably makes our “good guys” look bad. And Daniels (THE SQUID AND THE WHALE) fares well in a bit (though significant) part as Carter, a CIA rep whose ties to Samir imply the alleged outlaw is working within the law – even though Carter’s concept of it is no better than the enemy’s. (“This is war; you do what it takes to win.”)

Here as in real life, the CIA and FBI don’t seem to know what the other is doing.

But it’s essentially Taghmaoui (THE KITE RUNNER) whose low-keyed performance stands out. As Samir’s confederate Omar, he imbues his role as a terrorist with a marked sense of principle, despite his militant convictions. (Over a chess game while in prison, Omar advises him: “You must be willing to sacrifice some of your pawns if you want to win the game” … a stance not so different from Daniels’.) Oh so subtly, he makes his bad guy seem humane. Not an easy task.

The bad news: To paraphrase the Bard: The fault, dear Brutus, is not with the stars, but with the script. Though camera work by Muro (CRASH) is exceptional, as is the often edge-of-your-seat pacing by director Nachmanoff (THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW), they can’t atone for the script’s sins of omission. Except for the one cited (seeing his dad blown to bits) we know practically nothing of the how and why the sensitive, accomplished Samir got to his stage of life. Like Minerva, he appears to have grown, fully sprung from the head of the writers. We could have expected a more fully-realized character.

The bottom line: If your bottom can survive the surfeit of explosions, suspend disbelief and take Samir at face value, then TRAITOR is worth the almost 2-hour detour.


Trivia: Hollywood has come a long way from Soviet movie villains of the Cold War (GOLDFINGER, et al). Since 9/11, momentum has shifted to another part of the globe, where it’s now de rigueur to look cross-eyed at anyone who wears a keffiyeh and prays to Allah the mandatory 5 times daily. But pre-jihads, and long before the last millennium, there’ve been a slew of fine films – featuring times of war and encounters with the enemy – that certainly merit a visit to your local video store. Here are a sampling:

At the Front

ALLL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT; BATTLEGROUND; GALLIPOLI; THE LONGEST DAY; PATHS OF GLORY; ON A MIDNIGHT CLEAR; ENEMY AT THE GATES; WE WERE SOLDIERS; THE HUMAN CONDITION; LAWRENCE OF ARABIA; ATTACK!

Great Escapes & Wartime Adventures:

BALLAD OF A SOLDIER; THE FOUR FEATHERS (1939 Zoltan Korda, dir.); GRAND ILLUSION; THE GREAT ESCAPE; THE GUNS OF NAVARONE; KING RAT; ONE OF OUR AIRCRAFT IS MISSING; THE TRAIN; VON RYAN’S EXPRESS; WERE EAGLES DARE; THE WOODEN HORSE; BRAVO TWO ZERO; IN HARM’S WAY; APOCALYPSE NOW; THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI; CROSS OF IRON.

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