Traitor

The more I think about this movie, the better it gets. Traitor is a thoughtful, intelligent, sophisticated story about a topic of overwhelming interest to Americans–terrorism–but told from the point of view that few Americans really know–that of a devout American Muslim. It’s full of action and secrets and plot twists. It takes place all over the world–cities and rural areas across the U.S., Canada, Yemen, Sudan, France, Spain, England. In fact the sheer number of locations–and modes of transportation (read terrorist targets)–is an eye-opening reminder of how international global terrorism really is.

All technical credits, especially the cinematography by J. Michael Muro (Open Range, Crash) and the haunting Arabic-influenced soundtrack by Mark Kilian (Rendition) are superb. The performances are unforgettable. Don Cheadle (Oscar-nominated for Hotel Rwanda), as the conflicted man of action, is mesmerizing, proving once again that he is the country’s leading unheralded movie actor. He leads an extraordinary cast, most of whom are little known international actors.

Most curious is the origin of the story. It was co-authored by zany comedian/writer Steve Martin (The Pink Panther, Roxane). Who would think his background would prepare him to delve into such deep waters? Even more curious is the director/co-author Jeffrey Nachmanoff–his only directing experience was a low-key comedy (Hollywood Palms) and his previous writing consists of co-authorship on the script for The Day After, the high budget but rather inane global warming tale. Where and how did young Nachmanoff gain the mature mojo to handle such a challenging project as Traitor? Even more important–what’s he going to do next?

It’s impossible to do justice to the story without revealing its plot twists. So here’s just the bare bones. Samir Horn (Don Cheadle) was born in Sudan and saw his father blown up in a terrorist bombing. He moved with his mother to Chicago, where he discovers his Muslim roots, dedicating himself to an interpretation of the Koran that emphasizes its benign, peace-loving aspects.

As a young man, however, he joined the U.S. Army Special Forces and became a demolitions expert, where his unique talents came to the attention of Carter, a mysterious homeland security consultant (Jeff Daniels, The Lookout). Along the way, Samir fell in love with a photographer, a gentle woman named Chandra (Archie Panjabi, A Mighty Heart.)

When the film discovers Horn, he is selling weapons to Islamist terrorists in Yemen. He’s caught in a raid lead by FBI agents, including Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce, The Proposition), the son of a Baptist minister who earned a PhD in Arabic Studies and ended up far from Christianity in the FBI anti-terrorism unit. Clayton offers Samir a deal to save himself, but he refuses. Samir is hauled off to a horrific Yemeni prison where his religious beliefs are sorely challenged by other Muslims who refuse to act brotherly. There he meets Omar (Said Taghmauoui, Vantage Point), who is an equally devout Muslim, but who interprets the concept of jihad very differently. Upon escape from prison, Samir joins Omar’s colleagues and eventually sets off on a terrorist path. That’s all I can say. Be prepared to be fascinated and intrigued and surprised.

Who’s a terrorist? Who’s a traitor? Who’s an innocent victim? Who’s doing the will of God? Can a man really be alive if he doesn’t believe in something worth dying for? The movie raises these questions and more while it hopscotches across the globe, connecting the dots among isolated Islamist terrorist cells. In the end, the question becomes, who really in this day and age can claim to be a man of peace?

Traitor is not a hyped up car-chasing, karate-chopping, testosterone-thumping thriller. There’s not even any cuss words–no doubt why it got a PG-13 rating, despite the violence. For these reasons, alas, it’s probably not going to make a big impact on the big screen. Thus, don’t dawdle. See it right away and take with you friends who like to think.

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