Running Time: 110 min
Rated: M (terrorism themes, violence, and coarse language).
This is another film about American-Muslim relationships, or the lack of them. Echoing the ambiguity of its title, the film focuses on Samir Horn (played by Don Cheadle) who is an explosive expert, a Sudanese American and a devout Muslim, and he keeps showing up where terrorists do their bombings. Samir is imprisoned and becomes friendly in jail with Omar (played by Said Taghmaoui) who leads a terrorist group. Samir uses the skills he has learnt to engage in terrorist activities, including the bombing of a US embassy in Nice and he is recruited to a plan to put suicide bombers on buses in the US. Samir is pursued acoss the globe by FBI agent Roy Clayton (played by Guy Pearce) and the final confrontation between Samir, the terrorists and the FBI makes for gripping cinema. But things are not as simple as the label, "Samir-the-Traitor,' allows you to think. This is really a film about the duplicity of covert operations and the film has a surprising even-handedness about the way it treats Muslims and the various jihad-committed characters in it. Samir's behaviour contrasts with that of others, like Max Archer, an FBI-agent (played by Neal McDonough), who has no trouble living with his prejudices. The film tries to be fair not only to the American cause, but to the terrorist groups that are implacably opposed to it; the movie is not anti-American, and it is not anti-Muslim. Don Cheadle plays the role of Samir in a very low-key way, almost daring us to come to any rational conclusion about all that is happening and what he seems to be involved in doing. One is left with a decided sense of moral ambiguity about his character, and the film engenders a strong sense of belief in the world as a place that is very well-suited to the formation of terrible alliances. There is no one evil, and no one force for good. The film asks us to draw our own conclusions about contemporary anxieties, post 9/11; its politics are multi-sided and its story-line is plausible.
Religion has a strong role to play in this movie. Samir's unwavering devotion to his own religion lends his actions spiritual force that paradoxically gives the movie a strong sense of ethical direction. The FBI agent who pursues him, Roy Clayton, plays out his own history as a minister's son. The film advocates religious tolerance of all sides and Samir's faith is used to try to counteract the terrorist's group's own objectives about extreme violence. As a result, the movie is rather more intelligent than others like it; it doesn't ground the viewer in simplistic interpretations or point to them too obviously. But how can the honourable Samir be responsible for the murder of so many others? Whose faith is being misused, and by whom? Ambiguous motives and moral conflicts abound in this film, and it earns its title as a thinking person's action movie. However, the natural caution that the film engenders makes its story-line complex, and at times engagement in the action gives way to thinking about it.
This is the first feature-length film under the direction of Jeffrey Nachmanoff, who wrote the screenplay for "The Day after Tomorrow.' His direction is well-controlled and we are typically exposed to world locations into which the story is embedded, and the film's action sequences are played out across the globe without looking too contrived. The pace of the movie is taut, the viewer is always kept guessing, and the action-play is entertaining, but the resolution is far from being settled or comfortable. We might want to feel satisfied at the end of this movie, but comfort is a feeling this film intentionally does not want to deliver.
Most political thrillers aim to excite the viewer, often in paranoiac fashion, and leave it at that. This film manipulates our sympathies in an unusual and clever way. It is unusual, because it preaches tolerance in a morally ambiguous world; and it is clever, because it leaves the ultimate judgement up to us. The film lives up well to its tagline - "the truth is complicated,' and it demonstrates convincingly that total behavioural consistency in anyone should never be assumed.
Paramount Out November 6th 2008
Peter W. Sheehan. Associate of the Australian Catholic Film and Broadcasting Office.