Traitor misses mark
August 28, 2008
Traitor weaves a tangled web of conspiracy and intrigue, crosses politics with thriller elements, and never quite answers its central question: In the war between good and evil, how many good people is it justifiable for the good guys to kill? Maybe that question has no answer. It is probably not none.The film stars Don Cheadle, an actor who excels at inner conflict, as Samir, born in Sudan, later an undercover special op for the United States. As a youth, he witnessed his father killed by a car bomb. For me, at least, it was not immediately clear who was responsible for the bomb, although his father was a committed Muslim. Was he killed by Muslim haters or by Muslims who opposed his politics? That ambiguity works in the films favor. As Samir enlists on the American side and then is seen as a remarkably effective agent for terrorist jihadists, we are kept wondering where his true loyalties lie.The film makes it a point that Samir is devout in the practice of his religion. He often quotes the Quran, is observant, seems to have true spirituality in his soul. He is not pretending. Of course, the great majority of Muslims are against terrorism and any form of murder. Others, as we have seen, are not. In paying attention to this division, Traitor establishes the mystery of which side Samir is a traitor to. Is he a double agent for the U.S. or a triple agent?The film, written and directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff, uses locations in Africa, the Middle East, Europe and America, and provides an inside view of both the jihadists and a special FBI counterterrorism unit. Guy Pearce and Neal McDonough play FBI agents who disagree about the handling of the case; Jeff Daniels is a CIA agent who approaches the plot obliquely. Said Taghmaoui is very effective as Omar, leader of a terrorist group that has grave suspicions about Samir, until Samir is able to disprove them by being jailed, escaping with Omar, providing bomb-building expertise, and creating a chilling scenario for a terrorist attack in the United States.The movie proceeds quickly, seems to know its subject matter, is fascinating in its portrait of the inner politics and structure of the terrorist group, and comes uncomfortably close to reality. But what holds it together is the Cheadle character, whose true motives remain opaque to the terrorists, the Americans and the audience.As we have learned from the spies of Graham Greene and John LeCarre, and from countless police movies, to be effective, an undercover agent must to a considerable degree cooperate with those he is targeting. Sometimes transference takes place. He begins to think like his enemies, to sympathize with them. Since working convincingly for either side requires a capacity for the fanatical, agents can grow confused about where their loyalties lie. It is this confusion that makes Traitor effective, except for those who like their moral choices laid out in black and white.Thats what makes the films pure thriller elements work so well. Even in violent action scenes, the participants are forced to make instant decisions, or discoveries, about loyalties. We know from other movies how the violence will unfold, but neither we nor the combatants are sure which side everybody is on. That is true even of the urbane Omar, who is definitely a jihadist, but whose motives and their effect are paradoxical.Don Cheadle is such a good actor. If he were more of a showboat, he would be a bigger star. But he remains the go-to man for a film like this. Except in his work like the Oceans pictures or his heroic work in Hotel Rwanda, we cannot often be certain what we are to think of his characters. He effortlessly seems too intelligent, too complex, to be easily categorized. Perhaps my doubt about the motives of Samirs fathers killers was due only to confusion on my part. Even so, who would witness the death of his father by a bomb and then be driven to become a builder of bombs? And why? It is an uncertainty potent enough to drive the entire movie.
Traitor Overture Films presents a film written and directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff. Produced by Don Cheadle, David Hoberman, Jeffrey Silver and Todd Lieberman. Photographed by J. Michael Muro. Edited by Billy Fox. Music by Mark Kilian. Running time: 113 minutes. Classified: PG-13 (for intense violent sequences, thematic material and brief language). Rated: Three stars.
Philip KennicottThe Washington PostOnce again there are terrorists in our midst, and once again they are Muslims, hiding in sleeper cells, posing as ordinary Americans, waiting to cause mayhem. Heroic action is needed.To save us from the terrorists?More pressingly, to save us from films such as Traitor, a long-winded thriller starring Don Cheadle as a conflicted Muslim who is either an undercover U.S. operative or a ruthless killer, or maybe both. It is filmed in a rat-a-tat style all too familiar from television thrillers tense meetings of high-level Homeland Security types, aerial shots of Washington, gritty scenes set in Third World prisons, and a manic hopscotch around the globe as things start to blow up. But director Jeffrey Nachmanoff wants something deeper, too, a more nuanced view of the enemy. Traitor traffics in the cliches of the terrorist chase film including the usual stereotypes of Muslims while trying not to succumb to outright bigotry.Is there an A for effort in terrorism films? Hardly. Terrorism is a dubious subject for entertainment. The excesses of fear it inspires are corrosive to society. The things that are inherently exciting in a film about terrorism violence, torture and the ticking clock that portends doom are the very sort of things that short-circuit our ability to think rationally about the threats we face.Even a film such as Traitor, which tries to wring its hands a little along the way, brings us back to the same place: waiting stupidly for the next bomb to go off.