It’s very difficult to critique a film like Traitor merely as a piece of entertainment. Given that it deals with terrorism, it’s almost impossible to talk about without letting one’s own personal political or religious views, and especially one’s prejudices, shine through.
Mention the word “Muslim”, and, I’m sure you’ll agree, many of those same people get exactly the same picture. Which is, of course, completely unfounded and unfair.
Imagine, therefore, what it must be like to be a deeply religious, conscientious man who must pretend to be a terrorist, in order to complete a mission where the end result is that he would be regarded as a betrayer of his own kind. Such is the quandary for Samir Horn, played with near letter-perfect precision by the incredibly talented Don Cheadle.
We meet Samir for the first time as a boy, learning the ways of Islam in the Sudan with his father, right before his father is tragically killed in a car bomb. Fast-forward to the present, where Samir is imprisoned in Yemen. As it turns out, Samir is actually a top-secret double agent working for the FBI – so secret, in fact, that only his FBI contact (Jeff Daniels) knows his identity. Hot on his heels is FBI agent Roy Clayton (played wonderfully by Guy Pearce, making his return to big-budget films after a long absence).
It takes an actor of Cheadle’s caliber to truly make the audience feel his plight, living a terrible lie while being an integral part of some truly terrible things, but he pulls it off magnificently. Despite his American accent, I never doubted his character’s, well, character for a moment; deeply devout, driven by duty and torn to emotional shreds by how far he must go.
If you go into Traitor expecting the adrenaline rush of the Bourne films or the coolness of James Bond, you will be disappointed. And speaking of disappointed, that is how I would characterize how I felt after seeing many of the recent films centering on the Middle East (Rendition, Lions for Lambs, Stop Loss). Many of these films, additionally, are box-office disappointments, partly because their “message” hits a little too close to home for some people, but also because they deliver that message with ham-fisted clumsiness.
Traitor, on the other hand, delivers its message with almost subliminal subtlety, while still giving us a taut, tense, dramatic, entertaining film. Actually, it gives us two messages: the first is that many agents of terror simply do not fit the stereotypical Bin Laden image that many of us have; they look completely normal, like any one of our neighbors, co-workers or friends might look. And before you think that this message is offered in order to make us even more paranoid and fearful than we already are, let me assure you that the film’s second message, which is delivered with even more clarity, is that most extremists are fueled by a sense of duty, a belief that they are on the side of right. Resulting to violence is a line that only a minute fraction of Muslims cross… a fact that we would all do well to remember.
This is an exceptional piece of filmmaking. Not easy to see, to be sure, but well-acted and well-shot, and it will have you thinking deep thoughts as you leave the theater. Which is as it should be.
4 / 5 stars