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Movies

False Loyalties

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By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Once again there are terrorists in our midst, and once again they are Muslims, hiding in sleeper cells, posing as ordinary Americans, waiting to cause mayhem. Heroic action is needed.

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To save us from the terrorists?

More pressingly, to save us from films such as "Traitor," a long-winded thriller starring Don Cheadle as a conflicted Muslim who is either an undercover U.S. operative or a ruthless killer, or maybe both. It is filmed in a rat-a-tat style all too familiar from television thrillers -- tense meetings of high-level Homeland Security types ("Raise the threat level!"), aerial shots of Washington, gritty scenes set in Third World prisons, and a manic hopscotch around the globe as things start to blow up. But director Jeffrey Nachmanoff wants something deeper, too, a more nuanced view of the enemy. "Traitor" traffics in the cliches of the terrorist chase film -- including the usual stereotypes of Muslims -- while trying not to succumb to outright bigotry.

Fortunately, there's always Don Cheadle. Along with playing Sammy Davis Jr. in the 1998 "Rat Pack," Cheadle has done two things to earn Hollywood moral gravitas: He championed the cause of Darfur, and he starred in the genocide drama "Hotel Rwanda." Cheadle, who is one of the film's producers as well as its star, is deployed like an ethical talisman, a good-luck charm to ward off any insinuation that this movie (in which callous, hypocritical Muslim terrorist leaders sip champagne while sending misguided youths to their deaths as suicide bombers) is not like those other terrorist flicks. And to some degree it's not, but these are rarely the moments when you think "Traitor" is at its best. Cheadle stars as former U.S. special operations officer Samir Horn, who has infiltrated the confusing and chaotic world of Islamic terrorism so well that the FBI is unaware that he is (probably) working for the United States. Lead agents Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Max Archer (Neal McDonough) chase Horn around the world, engaging in contrived and slightly preachy discussions about terrorism and Islam. It's a good-cop, bad-cop routine. Roy generally champions the liberal line, and has learned to read Arabic as proof of his sincerity. Max punches unarmed and helpless prisoners -- "I must have left my Bill of Rights at home," he says -- and generally stands for unregenerate bigotry.

Cheadle, as Samir, shows himself conflicted about the lengths he must go to prove loyalty to his handlers. Spying is dirty work, and Samir is trying his best to seem like a ruthless killer without compromising his religious principles, which forbid violence. He hates shedding innocent blood, a scruple hard to maintain while outfitting a young man with an explosive-filled suicide vest.

The chase is on, and the film takes us to a bewildering gazetteer of First World and Third World locations: Sudan, Yemen, Costa del Sol, Marseille, Chicago, London, Toronto and of course Washington. Terrorists and people who chase terrorists are all cosmopolitans, at home around the world. There are attempts to noodle deeply on the subject and nature of international terrorism -- "Terrorism is theater," muses one of the bad guys -- but it emerges more like a dark shadow of some multinational business: A top-down organization in which the lucky few live the high life while poor schmoes do the heavy lifting and get blown to smithereens in the process. The film comes perilously close to quasi-absolution for the terrorist foot soldiers: poor traduced young men from bad neighborhoods who have sadly fallen under the sway of evil leaders.

The film's moral reasoning is all parenthetical: There are bad guys out there (but they're not all irredeemably bad), and while we must fight them, we shouldn't sink to their level (except when we have to). This doesn't add up to real nuance. It just encourages people to break the rules and feel bad about it. The film, which borrows a line from Samir as its subtitle ("The Truth Is Complicated"), would be stronger if it thought more simplistically: Terrorism is always wrong, as is breaking the laws of civilized behavior to fight it.

But you don't hire Cheadle to infiltrate a shadowy al-Qaeda-like network of killers without expecting some anguish of the conscience -- best seen in his growing friendship with the committed but very human fanatic Omar (Said Taghmaoui) -- along the way. Unfortunately, Cheadle's self-agonizing is done in a world-weary monotone, as if he saw too much in his Rwanda film and just wants us all to be friends.

Is there an A for effort in terrorism films? Hardly. Terrorism is a dubious subject for entertainment. The excesses of fear it inspires are corrosive to society. The prejudices that underlie those fears are not neutralized by hiring Don Cheadle. The things that are inherently exciting in a film about terrorism -- violence, torture and the ticking clock that portends doom -- are the very sort of things that short-circuit our ability to think rationally about the threats we face.

And there's no catharsis in it, no matter who wins in the end, because the terrorist, as cinematic actor, is never defeated. He's always lying in wait, ready for the next film, ready to reenact the old fears and prejudices. Even a film such as "Traitor," which tries to wring its hands a little along the way, brings us back to the same place: waiting stupidly for the next bomb to go off.

Traitor (114 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for intense violent sequences, thematic material and brief profanity.


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