Traitor (United States, 2008)
Traitor is an uncommonly intelligent espionage thriller that explores the moral and ethical dilemmas faced by agents who go deep undercover in the service of their country. For movies that revolve around terrorist organizations and acts, there are typically two approaches: a gung-ho, "John Wayne" style and a story that seeks to humanize the terrorists. Traitor takes a different, less straightforward trajectory that exhibits the complex motivations of the terrorists as well as those who oppose them without resorting to caricatures on either side. The film's villains are not cookie-cutter bad guys and the FBI agents are neither bumbling nor infallible. Caught in the middle of everything is a man trying to save innocent lives but whose actions end up taking them as well.
As the film opens, Samir Horn (Don Cheadle) is in Yemen delivering detonators to a fundamentalist Islamic terrorist group. A covert FBI raid, lead by agents Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Max Archer (Neal McDonough), kills or captures everyone in the compound. Samir and a highly-paced terrorist, Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui), are taken into custody. Under questioning, Samir is given an opportunity to name names in exchange for his freedom, but he refuses. While in prison, Samir and Omar form a bond so, when Omar's allies break him out, he brings Samir with him. Now on the "inside," Samir is where he needs to be to foil a major terrorist attack planned to occur on U.S. soil. We learn that he is an American agent deep under cover - so deep, in fact, that only his handler, a man named Carter (Jeff Daniels), knows about his existence. Carter is a ruthless individual, declaring that Samir should do whatever is necessary to establish himself as legitimate to the terrorists, even if it ultimately costs lives. His sentiments, so like those of Omar, disturb Samir, who believes in a kinder, gentler brand of Islam.
Traitor takes a two-pronged approach, providing insight into the terrorists' planning as well as the efforts of the FBI (along with other security agencies) to stop the attack. In some ways, the film feels like one of the Bourne movies without the action. Traitor is devoid of mindless, physics-defying chases and stunt scenes. Characters die, but not in extreme or exaggerated fashions. That's not to say there's no tension. The final 20 minutes in particular generate a build-up of suspense as everything converges. It's possible to argue that writer/director Jeffrey Nachmanoff (who co-developed the story with Steve Martin - yes, that Steve Martin) settles for an ending that is a little too neat although, to his credit, it's not all flowers and candy.
At the center of Traitor lies the difference between "standard" Islam and the fundamentalist variety that underlies the philosophical motivations of many terrorist organizations. Samir represents the former while Omar stands in for the latter. In many ways, they aren't so different, and both are wary of some of the actions of their higher-ups, who at times seem a little too comfortable with the exercise of power and the pursuit of worldly pleasures (all in the name of "blending in"). For Samir, everything he does represents walking a moral tightrope. The event that haunts him is when something he does to protect his identity goes horribly wrong.
The actors were chosen for their abilities to portray characters who inhabit areas of gray. Not since Hotel Rwanda has Don Cheadle been this forceful. Samir is trapped in an impossible situation, yet we can't help but hope he'll find some way to thread the needle. Guy Pearce makes Clayton an admirable individual with a quick mind. As Archer, Neal McDonough steps away from his usual psycho persona to play "bad cop" to Clayton's "good cop." Saïd Taghmaoui brings dignity and intensity to Omar, providing us with more than another one-dimensional terrorist.
Like The Constant Gardener a number of years before, Traitor is a thriller in search of an efficacious release date. It is too sedate and thoughtful for traditional summer fare (and will probably not play well with teenagers) but it's not the kind of movie that would survive during the holiday season going up against a new James Bond adventure. As a result, it has been forced into the unenviable position of holding down a Labor Day weekend slot. Perhaps, like The Constant Gardener, it will find its audience. As a thriller for adults who don't require manic chases, frenetic shoot-outs, and ten cuts per second, Traitor is smart, effective, and at times suspenseful. It's one of a very few terrorist-themed movies that presents its situation without resorting to exploitation or oversimplification.
Traitor (United States, 2008)
Cast: Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Neal McDonough, Jeff Daniels, Saïd Taghmaoui, Archie Panjabi
Screenplay: Jeffrey Nachmanoff, based on a story by Steve Martin and Jeffrey Nachmanoff
Cinematography: J. Michael Muro
Music: Mark Kilian
U.S. Distributor: Overture Films