What's the Arabic Word for "Predictable"?
Traitor / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | August 29, 2008 | Comments ()
From the first flickering frames of a typically “traumatic” opening sequence, to the Middle Eastern music cues and sitar flares, to the tin-ear dialogue, to the necessary plot points, to just about everything else, writer-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff’s Traitor feels like a synthesis of every modern thriller about Islamic terrorists. We’ve reached a point in our culture, cinematically, where pretty much every movie that even comes within spitting distance of being a political thriller has to include jihads and comflicted Feds and leaks and miscommunications; it’s like Nachmanoff was handed a recipe card labeled “Completely Adequate But Ultimately Pointless Thriller” and followed every dull step. But the weird thing is that all that predictability winds up being somehow comforting, as if Nachmanoff is grateful enough to have an audience that he doesn’t want them to work too hard, and he’s lucky enough to have Don Cheadle and Guy Pearce as leads, who elevate every scene they’re in. Basically, Traitor is like the best meal you’ve ever had at Taco Bell: Not as horrifying as it could have been, but still, you could have done a lot better.
The film opens in the Sudan in the early 1970s, where a young black boy is playing chess with his Arab father. The game ends, and the man exits the house and gets into a car outside with (presumably) friends. It’s a wide shot, showing the car and the empty-ish street around it, and this is a movie involving Arabs set in a country many people couldn’t point to on a map, which means that car can’t do anything but explode, sending the boy on a harrowing emotional journey that will haunt the rest of his conflicted days. And it does. Cut to present-day Yemen, where that boy has grown up to be Samir Horn (Cheadle), who drives to a shady meet in order to sell explosives to some itchy Muslims led by Omar (Said Taghmaoui). Samir almost closes the deal when the building is invaded by the Yemeni army and a pair of FBI agents, Clayton (Pearce) and Archer (Neal McDonough), who arrest everyone. Clayton interrogates Samir about where he got the bombs and where they were going, and it’s in their first scene together that the film shows one of its all too brief moments of becoming something more original and involving than your standard terrorist thriller. Cheadle is cool and noble, a Muslim man who believes in Allah and points out that he’s sold weapons to the U.S., and Pearce perfectly underplays Clayton, a Southern man devoted to justice but unwilling to go cracking skulls over it. When Archer and Clayton walk in, it isn’t bad cop, good cop; it’s bad cop and the cop who’s way too smart for this movie. Pearce and Cheadle make the most of their respective moments on screen, and are even better playing off each other, but it can’t last. Clayton walks out of the cell, leaving Samir to waste away in Yemeni jail.
And that would be that, except that (a) Samir is actually an undercover operative for the CIA, and (b) Samir and Omar become friends in prison, so when Omar breaks out, he takes Samir with him as a fellow believer and someone who knows how to handle demolitions. Meanwhile, the terrorist group to which Omar belongs starts bombing random targets like a beackfront in Spain, putting Clayton and Archer on their trail and, accordingly, Samir’s. Samir is forced to juggle time with his new friends with occasional meets with Carter (Jeff Daniels), his handler, and though Nachmanoff bumps up against some potentially powerful themes — e.g., how far should the U.S. go to stop terrorists, what’s the real human cost of the war on terror, etc. — Samir and Carter never get into it for long. Carter tells Samir to keep going; Samir is conflicted; they leave.
It’s during the generically focused but emotionally distant second act that Nachmanoff — with an inexplicable story credit from Steve Martin — reveals just how admirably dedicated he is to making a completely pedestrian movie. Not a single part of it feels new, or even real, from aesthetic details like the cluttered FBI offices with Bruckheimerian walls of reflective glass everywhere, to character details like Samir and Clayton’s lack of motivation, to structural problems like bad dialogue and repetitive music. When Samir confronts Carter about his doubts, he says, “We’ve got blood on our hands,” to which Carter responds (say it with me now), “This is a war. You do what it takes to win.” Then there’s the moment when Samir emerges from forced hiding to contact his girlfriend, only to tell her, “The truth is complicated.” Is it ever anything else? Nachmanoff’s characters don’t have any subtext because they’re too busy using it as dialogue, and they don’t have any motivation because they’re too busy running around and faking it. Passing mention is given to Samir’s and Clayton’s fathers, but not enough to even halfway cement their upbringing as something to embrace or overcome. Why do these men do what they do? I don’t even think Nachmanoff knows.
Still, the movie is saved from outright failure because of Cheadle and Pearce. They are two of the strongest leading men of their generation, and they’ve got the confidence to slow play their characters, to do the most they can with what little they’ve been given in the script and make these men, or at least the manhunt, somehow relatable. Everyone else is mostly forgettable, including McDonough, who never seems quite at home in the role, and Daniels, who seems to have shot his scenes during his lunch break from something else. Yet it’s Taghmaoui who often winds up the most relatable simply because he’s the most recognizable. He’s a French-born actor who, among other things, co-wrote Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine, but the guy makes his money playing generic terrorist roles like this one. (He was also in Three Kings as the pissed-off Iraqi who tortured Mark Wahlberg.) He’s a talented actor, but because movies like this one are easy to churn out and show no sign of going away, he’ll probably stay employed for a while. As soon as I saw him on screen, I knew the movie was doomed.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.