“Traitor” Explores Religion, Terrorism to Little Effect
- Christian Hamaker Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2008 8 Aug
Release Date: August 27, 2008
Rating: PG-13 (for intense violent sequences, thematic material and brief language)
Run Time: 112 min.
Director: Jeffrey Nachmanoff
Actors: Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Neal McDonough, Jeff Daniels, Said Taghmaoui, Archie Panjabi
A story about Islamic terrorists infiltrated by a Muslim explosives expert with ties to the West, Traitor manages to be unsatisfying as a thriller, dreary as a thought piece, and somewhat offensive in the amount of screen time it spends as a terrorist apologia.
Don Cheadle stars as Samir Horn, a devout Muslim and special ops agent for the United States who’s now closely tied to a group of international terrorists. Drawn to the group through his friendship with Omar (Said Taghmaoui), a jihadist he meets while in prison in Yemen, Samir finds a commonality with men who will stop at nothing to defeat their enemies.
After a spectacular attack on the U.S. consulate in Nice and London, Horn, who speaks excellent English and can pass unnoticed in the United States, is tapped to orchestrate another attack in the American Midwest. Trying to stop him is FBI agent Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce, putting on a passable Southern accent), son and grandson of Baptist preachers, who thinks he might have some insight into the Horn’s motives. Another agent, Max Archer (Neal McDonough), is less interested in motives and more in cracking skulls.
Motive is also the primary interest of director and writer Jeffrey Nachmanoff, who goes to great lengths to lay out the case for jihadism against the West. Shots of devout Islamic prayer share screen time with expressed rationales for suicide bombings (“you must be willing to sacrifice some of your pawns to win the game”; “a man who is not afraid to die can never be defeated”), moral equivalency with other religions (“every religion has more than one face”), and comparisons between the Ku Klux Klan and Christendom.
Horn is not so easy to pin down. Working with a shady Western official (Jeff Daniels, underused), he’s taken further than he wants to go in a plot that results in the death of innocents. The incident forces Horn to wrestle with how he can be a faithful Muslim while trying to keep some distance from religious extremism.
Such a flattering portrayal of the internal struggles of religious belief is unusual in mainstream Hollywood films. (Christian audiences can think back on Amazing Grace as one of few recent films that dared attempt a thoughtful examination of Christian convictions and how to live them out in one’s vocation.) The problem with Traitor is that Nachmanoff writes in too many characters, while gamely trying to cover the film’s inadequacies by racing around the globe, hoping to distract viewers with several shots of skylines in the Middle East, Europe and the United States.
Horn’s religious confusion comes across, but Clayton is a much less interesting character (and Archer less interesting still). The two adversaries don’t match up well, leaving the audience to focus on Horn’s more complex friendship with Omar, whose own journey toward enlightenment in the film’s final act proves to be the most interesting aspect of the story.
Traitor is a respite from the shoot-’em-up action films and comedies of late summer, but its thoughtfulness goes only so far. Although it explores religion in a way that most Hollywood films never do, the film rarely rises above the most minimal expectations, offering few surprises other than its unvarnished view of terrorist motives. It comes across more like a stern lecture than a thoughtful entertainment, pedantic when it might have been more gently persuasive. Mostly, it’s a muddle that fails to satisfactorily develop the complex interplay of religion and politics at its core.
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- Drugs/Alcohol: Smoking and drinking.
- Violence: Terrorist campaigns involve suicide bombings and destruction of a U.S. consulate; men are slapped, punched, cut, beaten and shot; a man is shown with blood coming from his mouth; a young man is thrown to his death; a pistol whipping; a man’s head gets bashed against a wall; multiple car bombings.
- Language/Profanity: Some foul language.
- Sex/Nudity: Male prisoners stand naked, shown from the waist up; a man shaves his chest.
- Religion: All religions are said to have “two faces,” thereby justifying violence; a man is forced to say the Lord’s Prayer at gunpoint; depictions of Islamic prayer.