The truth is complicated
By Devin D. O’Leary
Directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff
Cast: Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce
In the decently crafted Traitor, Academy Award-nominated actor Don Cheadle plays Samir Horn, a Somali-born Muslim-American arms dealer trying to foment (or is it prevent?) a major terrorist attack on the United States. Much of Traitor’s runtime is taken up by questions of Samir’s loyalties. Clearly, as indicated by the title, he’s a traitor. But is he a traitor to the United States, where he once served in the U.S. Special Forces as an explosives expert? Or is he a double-agent, waiting to backstab his fellow conspirators?
The largest allure of Traitor lies in its sticky moral atmosphere. What Samir really is isn’t revealed until at least halfway through the film. (I’ll leave the question unanswered for those who haven’t already seen the spoiler-filled trailers.) But even after we know what team Samir’s playing for, the outcome isn’t completely clear-cut.
Neophyte filmmaker Jeffrey Nachmanoff has worked hard to craft an honest and clear-eyed look inside the modern-day world of Muslim terrorism. There are those who will accuse the film of providing a much-too-sympathetic look at radical Islam. It’s hard to argue, however, that Nachmanoff is off base. Primary villain Omar (French-born Moroccan Saïd Taghmaoui) is a slick, seductive and levelheaded recruiter for Middle Eastern extremists. This may clash with certain Americans’ image of bomb-waving, turban-wearing madmen; but it’s a much more accurate and, when you think about it, much more frightening vision of modern-day terrorism. It’s not hard to see why young Muslim men might be led astray by Omar’s polished sales pitch.
After laying down a convincing portrait of today’s international political climate, the script heads—or better or worse—straight into Bourne Identity territory. Guy Pearce (Memento) and Neal McDonough (“Band of Brothers,” “Boomtown”) soon show up as a couple of determined FBI agents trying to prevent the deadly terrorist attack. Their only lead? A mysterious arms dealer named Samir. It’s a twisty game of “who do you trust?” and Nachmanoff milks it for all he can. Samir is obviously a loyal, committed Muslim. Does that mean he’s sympathetic to Omar’s cause, or opposed to it? It’s going to take a worldwide trail of clues to find out.
Given the film’s restrictions (mostly budgetary), Traitor doesn’t begin to approach the tripwire timing of the Bourne trilogy. Those hoping for a political thriller that’s heavy on the thriller might come away a tad disappointed. Traitor works up some serious tension, but the film’s action remains more internal than external. In the end, the crisis of conscience drama and the action thriller fight it out in an uneven battle for supremacy. The thriller loses out, but not before injecting a rather conventional storyline and too-convenient wrap-up into what could have been a much more psychologically motivated character drama.
Hermosa Juventud/Beautiful Youth at National Hispanic Cultural Center
Part of the May film “Ciclo Cine Español Contemporáneo” program. Tickets available one hour before screening.
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