Traitor (2008)

Traitor is a movie that's all over the place, literally, and figuratively speaking. On the one hand, it's a globe-trotting spy thriller that moves from Sudan to Yemen to Paris to Toronto to Chicago. On the other hand, it tries valiantly not to oversimplify terrorists and the so-called war on terrorism, to add dimensional shades of grey to the stock black and white, good versus evil story of Islamic terrorists and the FBI agents trying to catch them. It is, in the end, a complicated tale of complicated people wrestling with moral and political ambiguities.

It's also a decent thriller, building suspense, withholding and revealing just enough information to create a narrative that is just plausible enough to be engaging, even while it asks the audience to sort out a complex tangle of motives, allegiances, and sympathies. It does this without flashy action sequences, and at a deliberate, unhurried pace.

Holding the center is a subtle performance by Don Cheadle as Samir Horn, the Sudanese-born son of an African father and an American mother. Samir is a devout muslim who questions the goals and methods of Islamic extremism yet who falls in with an international network of suicide bombers plotting a major attack against the U.S. Samir is recruited by Omar (Said Taghmaoui), with whom he engages in a vigorous, thoughtful moral and religious debate about war and jihad. Samir remains, for much of the movie, less an extremist than an extremely ambiguous character, a man of faith and conscience who walks in many worlds, and is at home in none. That he will be a traitor to someone is given away by the movie's title -- what isn't clear, even by the end of the movie, is just who and what he betrays.

To say that
Traitor is evenhanded in its portrayal of Islam and Islamic extremism is an understatement. It tries very hard, and mostly succeeds, in portraying the people involved in terrorism as complex human beings with, for the most part, sincere beliefs about the necessity and righteousness of what they do. This is not to say there are not fanatics and hypocrites among them, but they can be found working for the other side as well. Samir is seemingly pushed towards extremism by an encounter with FBI agents Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Max Archer (Neal McDonough). They suspect him of terrorist activity before he is ever involved in terrorist activity. Clayton and Archer, too, are examples of evenhandedness on the part of writer-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff. Archer is the bad cop, given to abusing prisoners and cracking wise about the Bill of Rights, while his good cop partner Clayton has a Ph.D. in Arabic Studies and is the thoughtful, soft-spoken son of a Southern preacher who somehow ended up working in counterterrorism.

The movie trips a bit as it hops needlessly from one location to another, meandering along with Samir and his compatriots while piling on additional characters like Samir's ex (Archie Punjabi), a shadowy intelligence contractor (Jeff Daniels), and assorted spooks, leaks, suicide bombers, and terror financiers. It is overly expansive, and overly ambitious, in trying to give a big picture look at the complex problem of terrorism, but it is at its best when it narrows its focus to Samir, to the psychologically, politically, and ethically compelling drama of a mysterious man and his moral dilemmas. It's only within the context of that small, intimate picture that the big picture can ever hope to make any sense.