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 in his feature film debut) is kidnapped by American intelligence officials for suspected terrorist activities and thrown in a Pakistani prison. After being tortured (in harrowing yet underplayed flashbacks), Hassan, an avowed secularist, becomes radicalized. Soon he's heading to America, ready for a jihad. But things don't go as planned, and he is forced to reconsider his commitment as he bonds with Sayeed (Firdous Bamji), a childhood friend, who is enjoying the good life as a doctor and family man in the Jersey burbs.
It's a life that Hassan could easily have enjoyed himself: He studied at the University of Maryland before heading for Paris and graduate school. He's sophisticated and possessed of a sweet nature, with a quiet, watchful manner and large, wounded hound-dog eyes. Something happened, and it changed him, and it is to the film's credit that it doesn't pound the viewer over the head with the wrongs done to him. This is a film that looks forward, rather than back, glancing over the shoulder every so often, just long enough to illuminate Hassan's history: a glimpse of riotous red welts across his back; a plastic bag yanked over his face and pulled tight; a silent scream.
Too, Hassan's transition to devout proselytizing is sketched with a light hand, with little dialogue: A fellow prisoner tells him, "The Brotherhood is here for you," and Hassan rebuffs him: "I don't want to have a [expletive] thing to do with your Brotherhood." In another scene, beaten and bruised, he is handed a copy of the Koran. By the time he's heading to the States, a stowaway on a freight ship, he is fervently devout Muslim.
Once stateside, he settles into the warm embrace of Sayeed's home. Sayeed is a moderate, and not particularly observant, Muslim: His wife, Farida (Sarita Choudhury of "Mississippi Masala" and "Kama Sutra"), wears traditional Pakistani dress, a shalwar kameez, but they haven't really taught their son, Ali, the rudiments of Muslim prayer. Sayeed's sister, the beautiful Duri, dates Americans and hangs out till the wee hours. There's an attraction between Duri and Hassan, but he can't get over the fact that she's been with other men.
They're immigrants, comfortably settled into America and trying to marry the old ways with the new. A life that is at great odds with Hassan's covert plans.
"When did you become so pious?" Sayeed asks Hassan.
"When did your forget your heritage?"
This is a quiet movie, shot in dark and murky shades, nocturnal scenes of bridges and tunnels, of dim bedrooms and dank basements where bombs are built. The duskiness serves two functions: to foster a chilling sense of growing menace and to reflect Hassan's turmoil, his war within, as he struggles with his conscience and his faith.
Directed by Joseph Castelo, who 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.
The War Within (90 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated and contains adult themes, violent scenes of torture and beatings.