There is a point in the film, about a hour or so into it, when one starts to question what exactly was Don Cheadle trying to say here. It's around the time that Cheadle's character, Samir Horn, a Sudanese-American, aligns himself with a terrorist group and blows up a consulate building, killing eight Americans. He then attends a party and celebrates those deaths with other terrorists.
One starts to question if Cheadle wants us to celebrate as well and cheer along with the terrorists. Perhaps, Cheadle is instead trying to paint a picture, not unlike that of John Walker Lindh, an actual traitor, an American who converted to Islam and who went and fought for the Taliban. Or, perhaps Cheadle is merely attempting to give us an idea of the men with whom we are at war.
Following Sept. 11, 2001, many people wanted to know and understand the hearts and minds of these men, these Muslim extremists, who believe in jihad against America, who dream of death for Americans, and who actually have the commitment to kill us even if it means strapping bombs to their chests and killing themselves.
There have been several films that have attempted to do that. The Oscar-winning film Syriana (2005) touched upon it. The Golden Globe-winning, Palestinian film Paradise Now (2005) came closer than any to getting its audience to empathize with its main characters who were suicide bombers. However, the independent film The War Within (2005) was probably the best example in the year following 9/11 of a film putting us in the shoes of the enemy.
Yet, watching this film, you're not sure if that's what Cheadle is doing. You're constantly questioning his character because you're not sure who he is, if he's the man he says he is, or the man that other people say he is. There are apparently two parallel tracks going about his character Samir Horn.
At the outset, Horn is arrested in Yemen. He tries to sell explosive detonators to a couple of suspected terrorists. After his arrest, two FBI agents arrive to interrogate him. The one who seems cool, calm, collected, and street smart when it comes to life in the Middle East is Agent Clayton, played by Guy Pearce (Memento and L.A. Confidential). The other is a cocky, hothead named Max Archer, played by Neal McDonaugh.
Clayton and Archer get nothing from Horn initially. But after Horn befriends Omar, a fellow Muslim who arranges their prison break, the FBI agents connect Horn to a terrorist cell run by a man named Nathir. The FBI believes that Nathir is responsible for several bombings in Europe and that Nathir will target the United States next.
Clayton and Archer do everything they can to find Horn. They start by digging into his history. At the same time, Omar wants to bring Horn into Nathir's terrorist cell. Therefore, Nathir and his associates also start digging into Horn's history. Both digs reveal intelligence that could make Samir Horn a prime candidate for a skilled terrorist, or, is he just being painted in the wrong light?
Certainly, Horn's behavior would at times suggest the latter. Horn's father was killed by terrorists, so, one could ask why would Horn then work with them. Horn also accuses Nathir's terrorists of not being devout and misinterpreting the Koran. Horn is military-trained and knows how to make bombs, but he later quotes Martin Luther King Jr., one of the greatest pacifists ever. Horn is almost a contradiction.
Yet, Horn is not truly an American. He has a Muslim-American mother, but Horn himself was not born in the U.S. He was born and raised in the Sudan. He's not exactly like John Walker Lindh. In fact, the first person to call Horn a traitor is another Muslim. Director Jeffrey Nachmanoff and writer Steve Martin do a good job of distinguishing and making the point that this is not an examination of traitorship against America.
This is an examination of traitorship against Islam. Probably since its inception, there has been a curiosity of how Islam should be interpreted. Most especially since 9/11, people have asked if Islam, by its nature, is a violent religion. Islam, if translated literally, means submission. Muhammed, unlike Christ, was a warrior who fought the people of Mecca.
However, many have said that Islam has been hijacked by fundamentalists who have made Islam seem more violent than it actually is, with their constant talk of jihad, and that the idea of jihad itself has been hijacked.
The real issue then becomes the conflict between how do you interpret the Islamic faith. The extreme fundamentalists who believe that terrorism against the West is justified have a lot of power, money and wield a lot of influence. They do so because many in the Middle East appease or sympathize with them. Is it because they feel if one opposes them, then they'll be labeled as traitors too? Or, are the terrorists themselves the real traitors to Islam?
Jeff Daniels (Pleasantville and The Squid and the Whale) has a supporting role as Carter, another FBI agent working outside the grid who is also trying to crack the terrorist cell. His character is basically the American equivalent of the fundamentalist terrorist. Carter believes if innocent people have to die to advance his cause, so be it.
Beyond that though, the film never properly articulates why the Muslims view their struggle as a true war. In one scene, Omar spews the same rhetoric, which states only superficially that the Muslims are victims to the big, mean, imperialist America. We never really get specific or personal motivations, even if only incidental.
There is another scene when Horn is in the Yemen prison where a fight breaks out between the non-Muslims and the Muslims. It shows that there are Arabs who dislike, or in the least, disagree with the fundamentalists and who don't wear a beanie cap and pray five times a day. Yet, the terrorists here are only portrayed as those who are Muslim. Where and how do the non-Muslims fit into this equation?
The film tries to be a single shot version of Showtime's Sleeper Cell, but doesn't quite have the emotional punch. It's certainly not as well-written as that premium cable TV series. It's strange, but Cheadle's character turns out not to be a true traitor, but I almost think the film would have been better if he was.
Three Stars out of Five
Rated PG-13 for violence and brief language
Running Time: 1 hr. and 54 mins.