"Traitor" is a shot across the bow. With films like "Towelhead," Oliver Stone’s "W" and Bill Maher’s "Religulous" due for release within months, in the midst of a tight presidential election, it’s going to be a controversial, divisive fall season.
"Traitor," with its relentless attempts to push our buttons and spark political dialogue, is a preview of what’s to come.
Samir Horn (Don Cheadle) was once a bomb expert for a U.S. military special operations unit. Now, he is a devout Muslim working his way through the hierarchy of a global terrorist organization. As he does so, he becomes close friends with Omar (Said Taghmaoui), another terrorist who has spent years living in Europe and America.
Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Max Archer (Neal McDonough) are FBI counter-terrorism agents whose investigations keep leading back to Samir. Through the agents, we learn more and more about Samir’s mysterious past.
While Samir and the FBI play cat and mouse, the movie toys with viewers, making us wonder whether Samir is what he seems. He is the traitor of the movie’s title, but is he betraying his nation or his fellow terrorists?
Gullible viewers may be on the edge of their seats wondering whether Samir is the hero or the villain, but you likely are too smart to fall for it.
"Traitor" throws a lot of pseudo-philosophical dialogue at us in an attempt to use an action movie format to ask some big questions. How far should the government go to combat terrorism? And who causes more violence and destruction in the world: Muslim terrorists or American counter-terrorism agents?
It also attempts to meditate on the nature of violence in the Islamic faith. Samir and Omar quote the Quran frequently and mention several spiritual leaders. Once in a while it’s thought-provoking, but then the American intelligence characters show up and we’re subjected to stereotypical one-liners that would fit better on "CSI: Miami."
In other words, "Traitor" isn’t as smart as it may first appear. It succeeds much more as an action movie. There are genuine surprises and suspense.
But there remains something uncomfortable about an action movie that plays around with religion so heavily. Samir is one of the rare devout Muslim protagonists in American film history, which is a nice change. But the movie bombards us with images of other Muslims praying to Allah just before they launch an attack.
In other words, "Traitor" isn’t nearly as politically even-handed as it may first appear, either.
This movie will have a difficult time finding an audience. It’s not intelligent enough for the art crowd, and it’s too long-winded for the action crowd. When "Traitor" works, it’s outstanding, but when it doesn’t, it’s the moviegoing equivalent of waterboarding.
No film as yet has been able to incorporate an intelligent discussion of the War on Terror into an exciting action movie package, and neither does "Traitor." It’s an energetic yet unsatisfying movie.
I give the cast and crew credit for trying something so ambitious, but they unfortunately miss the mark as often as they hit it.
Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.