Toward the end of "The War Within," a brown man with a Muslim name sits in a car, contemplating a bridge leading to the big city, the city where twin towers once pierced the sky. In a nasty bit of racial profiling, he's quickly arrested by one of New Jersey's finest, but they've got nothing on him, so they let him go. The irony: Hassan, the man in the car, really is up to no good.
Therein lies the power of "The War Within," a taut tale of terrorism and the fundamentalist ties that bind: Good is in the eye of the beholder, and in this instance, Hassan earnestly believes that he is doing God's work. He didn't start out this way. As a Pakistani engineering student in Paris, Hassan (Ayad Akhtar) is kidnapped by American intelligence officials for suspected terrorist activities. After being tortured (in harrowing yet underplayed flashbacks), Hassan, an avowed secularist, becomes radicalized. Soon, he's heading to America, ready to make jihad. But things don't go as planned, and he is forced to reconsider his commitment as he bonds with a childhood friend and his family, who are enjoying the good life in the Jersey suburbs.
Directed by Joseph Castelo, who co-wrote the script with Akhtar and Tom Glynn, "The War Within" never preaches. Instead, bolstered by strong performances, it teases out complex and uncomfortable questions about faith and the impact of American actions on the rest of the world. The filmmakers may not judge Hassan, but they don't let him off the hook, either. Call it a portrait of a mild-mannered zealot, one that seeps under the skin and unsettles the nerves.
-- Teresa Wiltz