Traitor

Marking the directing debut of Jeffrey Nachmanoff, “Traitor” is a decently made, socially relevant political thriller that speaks to our times in its depiction of the war on terrorism, but it's ultimately frustrating due to lack of in-depth characterization and an increasingly conventional yarn that ends on a compromising note.

New angle of conceiving an action hero who is an African-born Muslim-American is more than welcome, and for a while, it allows the filmmakers to explore the status and problems of this much misunderstood, often narrowly stereotyped and even ostracized group in the paranoid climate of the post 9/11 era. That this FBI agent is played by Don Cheadle, an honest actor who immerses himself in the role, including speaking credible Arabic, is a major plus, for Cheadle, who's also credited as a producer, literally carries the entire film on his broad shoulders.

But Cheadle, or rather the character that he plays, is also the problem. Indeed, despite good intentions, novel ideas and some intelligently depicted dilemmas, as a movie, “Traitor” can't decide whether it's essentially a plot-driven or character-oriented political thriller, and in the end sacrifices psychology and motivations for a rather routine yarn that increasingly loses credibility before ending with a neat resolution that almost negates the more complex situations that have prevailed in the picture's first and better half.

“Traitor” world-premiered at the first edition of a new event, the Downtown Los Angeles Film Festival, and will be released by Overture Films on Labor Day Weekend, not a particularly good spot. Judging from the trailer and TV spots, the movie is sold as a globe-trotting actioner in the manner of the “Bourne Supremacy” films, which it is not, least of all on the technical level. Likely to divide movie critics and disappoint alert viewers, commercial prospects are below mediocre, perhaps not different from those of most of the 9/11 films.

For a first feature, Nachmanoff shows command of technical skills, and with what feels like a middle-range budget is able to move around physically in a way that makes the film more ambitious than it really is. The sites include Marseille, Spain, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Toronto, Nova Scotia, and others, and the story is always careful enough to identify those places for the viewers. Nachmanoff previously penned the sci-fi actioner The Day After Tomorrow, which was also more impressive physically than narratively.

Though dealing with some similar issues, “Traitor” is exactly the opposite picture of the globe-trotting geo-political thriller Syriana, which was more cerebral and had too many subplots and characters for the viewers to grasp, but it was also more realistic, intelligent, cynical, and complex.

For better or worse, “Traitor” keeps the number of dramatic persona to a minimum, about half a dozen, and the narrative gradually turns into a rather simpler melodrama, centering on the battle and cat-and-mouse chase between two men, Samir Horn (Cheadle) and FBI agent Roy Clayton (Aussie-born actor Guy Pearce). (I presume it's pure coincidence that Pearce's agent is called Clayton a la Michael Clayton, played by George Clooney last year).

The story begins with an explosion, seen from the POV of Samir as a young boy, witnessing his Muslim father blown up by a car bomb in his native Sudan. This horrifying memory, which is repeated, continues to haunt the adult Samir. We quickly learn that Samir moved to the U.S. and became an operations officer with specialized skills and invaluable knowledge of places like Muhajadeen in Afghanistan. It would have been useful to include a flashback that depicts Samir's adolescence or young adulthood, how he formed his identity and politics, leading to his present position.

We also learn that Samir is married to a Muslim woman back in the U.S., though at first, it's unclear how much she knows of her hubby's activities and politics. Despite his racial and religious affiliations, Samir is willing to use his expertise with explosives for the cause of a local group in Yemen. Caught and arrested, he's thrown into jail, where he is like a fish out of water among the other prisoners, a result of his education, agreeable persona, gentlemanly manner, and good command of English.

In prison, he gets to know Omar (Said Taghmaoui), a jihad man educated in Europe and committed to the cause, and a tentative friendship evolves. One thing leads to another and the scenarists arrange for a prison escape so preposterous that would have made Steve McQueen proud in his 1960s action adventures.

Soon, as a U.S. citizen and former military man, Samir comes to the attention of FBI agents Roy Clayton (Pearce) and his tough right-hand man Max Archer (Neal McDonough). From that moment on, the yarn switches back and forth, not too smoothly, between Samir and Roy and his comrades, who are tracking bombings of Americans in Europe, one in Spain, a fatal attack on the U.S. consulate in Nice, a job personally engineered by Samir, though it's later revealed that he was promised that no personnel would be present there during the explosion.

Like Samir, Clayton, is a non-traditional FBI agent, more restrained and educated, relying on a fresher attitude toward his job, based on his academic background. (There's implicit criticism in his approach of the operations of the various government agencies due to their lack of clear communication with each other).

In contrast, Clayton's partner, Max Archer, is an old school law-enforcement type. The differences between their approaches and personalities become evident in a powerful scene, in which they differ as to how to interrogate Samir. Hot tempered and actionoriented, Archer would err by arresting every Muslim around rather than giving them the benefit of doubt.

The story gathers momentum (but also confusion) with the sudden appearance of a rather wild and mysterious character, CIA vet Carter (Jeff Daniels), with unclear motives except that he works with Samir. The two men meet secretly in places like parking lots to exchange info. A shadowy independent contractor for the CIA, Carter is willing to cross the line of right and wrong, even if it means risking his life.

Always cool and in control of emotions and actions, Samir moves up the ranks and gains the trust of a powerful elite of jihads, and together they begin to plan their biggest operation yet, a massive attack of a bus and its passengers in the very American heartland.

In these scenes, we get a closer look at the Jihad inner circles, how decisions are made behind closed doors, including the crucial role that money plays in these operations, through the mysteriously charismatic figure of Fareed (Aly Khan). The filmmakers should be credited for portraying the men who run the show as physically attractive and intelligent, and loyal to each other, decidedly deviating from the portraiture of Muslims (and Arabs) as outright villains in most Hollywood actioners.

French-Moroccan actor Said Taghmaoui (“The Kite Runner”) should be singled out in making a reasonably likable character out of Omar, a man committed to the cause at aall cost, who perecives himsef as a weapon, or tool in the bigger, worthier picture of terrorism.

The clock ticks in, tension builds up, and the big question is, how far would Samir go without betraying his basic loyaltieshe keeps saying, “I am an American citizen,” even though early one, he is established as a man who has no home (he even says I dont feel at home anywhere).

It's in this department that the film falls short of it honorable ambition, and in the end, Samir remains an enigma, a guy who no matter what he does is in a no-win situation. In the course of the yarn, Samir is responsible (directly or indirectly) for the deaths of several innocent American citizens and some professionals, too, but, with the exception of one scene, we never really see or feel the impact of these deaths and conflicted allegiances on the psyche and soul of Samir, who's cautious and restrained, keeping his thoughts and feeling to himself.

Ambiguity of character and the depiction of a tragic and troubled hero is one thing, but “Traitor” strikes me as a picture in which the filmmakers couldn't decide (or didn't know to commit) how to conclude the saga. It's too bad, because in the early chapters, you feel that Nachmanoff wants to say something about the shifting meaning and definition of heroism in contemporary American society.

Credibility wise, the film falls apart in the last reel, in which Samir walks around and behaves as if there's no security around, including visiting his wife in a public park and one scene in a coffee shop involving computers that's so preposterous and unbelievable that it nearly sinks the picture.

The diverse imagery by cinematographer Michael Muro is strong and helpful, and as noted, the technical aspects of the production make the film more convincing and enjoyable than it has the right to be. In the production notes, there is a funny anecdotes related by Nachmanoff. When he was looking for the right lenser to give his movie the proper look, he handed Muro the Beirut sequence in The Insider as a model for the visual style, only to be told by Muro that he himself had shot it.

Cast

Samir Horn – Don Cheadle
Roy Clayton – Guy Pearce
Omar – Said Taghmaoui
Max Archer – Neal McDonough
Fareed – Alyy Khan
Chandra Dawkin – Archie Panjabi
Nathir – Raad Rawi
Bashir – Hassam Ghancy
Leyla – Mozhan Marno
Hamzi – Adeel Akhtar
Carter – Jeff Daniels

Credits

An Overture Films release of a Mandeville Films, Hyde Park Entertainment, Crescendo production. Produced by David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman, Don Cheadle, Jeffrey Silver.
Executive producers: Ashok Amritraj, Steve Martin, Arlene Gibbs, Kay Liberman.
Co-producer: Richard Schlesinger.
Directed, written by Jeffrey Nachmanoff, based on a story by Steve Martin and Nachmanoff.
Cinematography: J. Michael Muro.
Editor: Billy Fox.
Music: Mark Kilian.
Production designer: Laurence Bennett.
Supervising art director: Rocco Matteo.
Set decorator: Jaro Dick.
Costume designer: Gersha Phillips.
Sound: John Thomson.
Sound designer-supervising sound editor: Leslie Shatz; re-recording mixers, Shatz, Marshall Garlington.
Visual effects: Intelligent Creatures, Ghost VFX.
Stunt coordinators: Matt Birman, Phillipe Guegan (Marseille, Morocco).

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 112 Minutes.