Recent movies that have dealt explicitly with terrorism, anti-Americanism and the war on terror have failed to generate much interest at the box office, despite our persistent nail-biting regarding these issues. Now another film, Traitor, casts its lot into this fraught cultural arena. But given its studied attempt to portray both American crime-fighters and Islamic terrorists fairly, the film is likely doomed to the same pit of general disinterest where its antecedents languish.
Which is a shame, because as geopolitical thrillers go, Traitor isn't a bad outing. Jeffrey Nachmanoff's film doesn't have the stylistic verve of a Bourne pic, a high-glam star nor a plot much deeper than a successful paperback page-tuner. But it's decent genre fare that at least aims beyond stereotypes and viewers' expectations.
Samir Horn (Don Cheadle) is an American Muslim, currently selling explosives in Yemen. When the deal goes wrong, Horn winds up in a local prison. There he earns the admiration of Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui), a member of a well-organized terrorist network. The pair escapes, and make for France, where Horn is quickly initiated into the group. His ardent faith, bomb-making skills and easy assimilation will be useful in the jihadists' plans to strike Western targets. That is, until a bungled strike puts Horn in the sights of FBI agent Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce).
Traitor offers more nuanced context than a basic shoot-up-the-bad-guys actioner, though it's still spelled out clearly for the cheap seats: America harbors violent religious fanatics of the Christian persuasion; the U.S. government also kills people in pursuit of noble purposes, including innocent civilians; and on both sides lurk shadowy dynamic figures with questionable motivations. The film also rises above any one-sided portrayal of Islam, allowing its characters to discuss their varied beliefs (and its real-world applications), and to disagree on interpretations of the religious texts.
Ultimately, this is all a lot of ripped-from-the-headlines window-dressing for an age-old dramatic set-up: the question of loyalty. When you dare to play in the middle, as Horn does, eventually you gotta pick a side, and Traitor enjoys teasing us about which path will win out.
The story has some pitfalls, including a hastily appended girlfriend and a too-murky operative, portrayed by Jeff Daniels. Meanwhile, the intense focus on just a few characters makes the procedural aspect of the narrative feel contrived: A vast international plot and there are just two globe-hopping FBI guys on the job? And the by-the-book plotting technique in the film's final reel undermines the tension it's intended to generate.
And while good lead performances helps smooth over the rough spots, I could have used a little more intensity from Cheadle. On the other hand, Pearce, who in recent roles has been a tightly wound, grim-faced skeleton, benefits from a more relaxed, low-key performance. He is one phlegmatic player in the war on terror. In English, and some Arabic, with subtitles.