by Tony Dayoub
Traitor is a timely thriller that still manges to evoke the spirit of the best of the seventies' thrillers. Like The French Connection, Dog Day Afternoon, and other films of that period, it gives us its story from a variety of perspectives. By casting such a wide net, it allows writer-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff to build the tension effectively in the climax, simply by pulling that net tighter until the central focus is the central character, Samir Horn (Don Cheadle).
Horn is a disaffected Muslim-American, and an ex-U.S. army explosives expert. When the film opens, he is in Yemen eking out an existence by selling his explosives and expertise to the highest bidder. This brings him into contact with Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui), a fiercely loyal jihadi soldier serving the Nathir terrorist cell. Their transaction is interrupted by an anti-terrorist task force, coordinated by FBI agent Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce). Clayton is one of the new generation of egghead agents, holder of a PhD. in Arabic Studies, and loathe to use violence over brains and persistence when trying to get an answer in his investigations. Horn is hard to pin down, though. He doesn't fit the traditional profile of a terrorist or mercenary. And what's his relationship to Carter (Jeff Daniels), an independent contractor for a U.S. intelligence agency?
The movie takes pains to give a balanced look at the divisive issues behind terrorism. Horn's decisions are clearer to us once put in the context of the death of his Sudanese father in a car explosion when he was a child. The fact that he must keep even his most basic religious duty - prayer - in check, or risk being the target of prejudice at work, seems like an understandable inciting incident that propels him to seek solace in the company of jihadi soldiers. Omar's support of terrorism as a weapon is but one facet of the jihadi's commitment to the cause. He also demonstrates a surprisingly pragmatic outlook when ordered by his superior to drink a glass of wine while dining in public. Even the Western-raised Horn has trouble breaking that Islamic prohibition. Agent Clayton is flexible in his efforts to track down the Nathir terrorist cell, open-minded enough to create an extensive profile of Horn in greater detail than his job requires. Raised in a conservative religion himself, he feels a certain kinship with Horn, and is reluctant to write him off as just another disillusioned Muslim joining the cause.
Like Hackman's Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, or Pacino's Sonny Wortzik in Dog Day Afternoon, Cheadle creates a complex lead that serves as an entry point into a mysterious subculture. Hackman's Doyle was a relentless cop, obsessed with closing his case more than achieving any real justice. Pacino's Wortzik was a clueless amateur thief whose love for a transsexual pushed him to commit a bank robbery, and into a media circus. Cheadle's Horn is in over his head just as much as Wortzik was in Dog Day. And though he is able to reconcile his spirituality with his betrayal of his Muslim brothers, he is just as dogged as Doyle in French Connection. But what all three characters have in common is that they are but small cogs in a machine that is much larger. Just as Doyle's efforts will have little impact on the French drug trade, and Wortzik's media stardom will fade away once the fickle press has no more story to tell, Horn's involvement in the jihad is only as long-lived as his usefulness to the cell is.
Director Nachmanoff effectively sets up each aspect of the story like dominoes. As one subplot is resolved, the domino falls, propelling the next one to its natural conclusion, and so on. Each domino falls until the only one left is Samir Horn and his motivations. The only saving grace for Samir is, unlike the protagonists of the earlier seventies thrillers, his ability to accept his place in the scheme of things.
Working within the limitations imposed by his situation may be the only thing that can save Samir Horn's life.
Still provided courtesy of Overture Films.