The War Within
Films have always provided a mirror for the fears of the society that views them. In the forties the dreaded menace was the Nazis. The fifties focused on the threat of communist domination and the cold war. Now, in this post 9-11 world terrorists are the bogy man that lurks in the shadows waiting to attack. One key theme that has persisted through all the above decades is even more in the minds of the audience, the enemy can be next to us and we would not have a clue. Alfred Hitchcock mastered this with films such as Saboteur and Spellbound. The thought that your neighbor that you pass in the hall may be part of a plot to attack you and your fellow citizens hits on a visceral level. Hassan (Ayad Akhtar) is a student studying engineering in Paris. His life is fairly mundane until one day he is kidnapped by American agents. Hassan is whisked off to an undisclosed location where he is imprisoned and tortured, suspected of being involved with terrorist activities. While in prison he is befriended by a Muslim brotherhood lead by the charismatic leader Khalid (Charles Daniel Sandoval). The young student is indoctrinated into their cause learning about the religion and their military objectives. Hassan went in to this predicament an engineering student but emerged a man on a mission of revenge against the country that mistreated him. Upon his release from prison he the new warrior is dispatched to the States where he is to explode a bomb in New York Cityís Grand Central Station. National Security learns the basics of the plot and Hassan takes refuge with a childhood friend, Sayeed (Firdous Bamji), living in New Jersey. Khalid is the typical Americanized immigrant, a physician living with his wife Farida (Sarita Choudhury) and their two young children Ali (Varun Sriram) and Rasheeda (Anjeli Chapman). Also on the scene is Sayeedís beautiful sister Duri (Nandana Sen) who is mutually drawn to the troubled Hassan. Hassan is caught between his new obsessions and actually connecting with the family that has given him shelter. He teaches young Ali about Islam and his cultural roots while planning on the murder of hundreds. While the parents are glad to have their son known about his heritage there is a growing concern about just how radical Hassanís views are.
In the last four years many films have examined the topic of terrorism. The focus of most of these films is on the act instead of the people willing to commit suicide in order to achieve their religiously based beliefs. A recent series on Showtime, Sleeper Cell, much of the story centered on a man caught between his religious beliefs and a sense of duty to America. Here the microscope is on a firmly committed man that feels he must kill himself to take revenge on a nation that has grievously wronged him. Are Hassanís motives borne from his he found religious zeal or a matter of simple revenge? After all it was agents of the United States that took him from his comfortable studies, inflicting torture upon him. In this case it seems that we created the weapon that would be employed against our population. The best part of the film is Hassanís interaction with Sayeed and his family. Hassan is conflicted, faced with a friend from a happier past while emotionally focused on mass murder. Some of the more intense scenes are between Hassan and Sayeed, two men that share a past but reacted completely differently. Hassan is a real victim; the scars on his back are a lasting testimony to the cruel treatment he received. Still, he chooses to take his feelings out on people that not only where not involved but who would not condone such torture. There is so much in the news about suicide bombers but nothing about the inner struggle any human being would have to go through to reach such a drastic decision.
The casting here is very strong. Each actor obviously committed to presenting fully formed human beings. Ayad Akhtar not only stars in this film but co-wrote it with director Joseph Castelo. This is Akhtarís first feature film but his performance is that of a more seasoned actor. He is able to give depth to Hassan. This is not a stereotypical villain in a political thriller. He allows the audience to view the transformation of Hassan as a very wrong turn of events makes this reasonable man consider the most unreasonable of actions. He only downside in the performance is Akhtar is unable to make Hassan a figure that the audience can fully empathize with. Part of this is intrinsic to the story, something so foreign to the experiences of the viewer that it is difficult for us watching to identify with what makes this character tick. Charles Daniel Sandoval has the on screen presence to be believable as a charismatic religious leader. It is understandable how Hassan is so influenced by this man. Khalid offers Hassan not only a means to survive the ordeal but a goal, revenge. Firdous Bamji as Sayeed offers an excellent counter point to the character of Hassan. Here is a man who has turned towards healing and helping others instead of plotting to kill them. There is an intense chemistry between him and Akhtar that helps to carry the middle part of the film.
Director and co-writer Joseph Castelo has only one other film to his credit so this is his sophomore effort behind the camera. As a new director he does well here but the third act of the film falls apart. After the attack is called off the film loses focus. While this does reflect the quandary of Hassan it would have been better to track how Hassan had to readjust his views after his goal has disappeared. The pacing of the first two acts is very good. The audience is pulled into an unfamiliar world and emotional context. Castelo has an eye for framing a scene, the details of the background and lighting adding to a stark realism. This is a different approach to a familiar topic but the story does not goe deep enough into what the characters are experiencing. The film is caught between thriller and drama never quite committing to one genre or the other. Even though its potential is not fully met the film holds together as an interesting concept.
Magnolia has done well in bringing this film to DVD. The anamorphic 1.78:1 video is vibrant with a crisp presentation. The color balance is realistic with very good contrast. The Dolby 5.1 audio has very good channel separation in the front speakers while the rear speaker set provides a natural ambience. The sub woofer does not get a lot of action here. The directorís commentary track presents a good look at the motivation for creating the film. This film has its flaws but its unique perspective makes it worth while.