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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Traitor (review)

Mind of the Beholder

Well, it took only seven years, two invasions, one extralegal offshore prison, pretend justifications for torture, and the trashing of the U.S. Constitution, but here we finally have it: the smartest, savviest, most seditious movie yet about the “global war on terror.” Seditious? Oh yes. Guy Pearce’s FBI agent actually says, flat out, “Homeland Security is a joke.” Which plenty of us have been saying for years, but, man, just to hear that in a big, loud Hollywood thriller is a refreshing blast of smackdown to the likes of 24 and Fox News and those people who tell the people earning minimum wage at airport metal detectors to tell us to take our shoes off and throw away our bottles of water. It’s either the beginning of the hint of a crack in the security theater we’ve been stonefacedly putting up with seven years, or it means, you know, that Guy Pearce will be in the Halliburton work camps with us. Either way: Hoorah!
You want more subversion? Traitor dares to suggest that it might be a good idea if the people hunting down Islamofascist suicide bombers might — get this — be fluent in Arabic. Nutty, huh? Pearce’s (Factory Girl, First Snow) Agent Roy Clayton has, in fact, a PhD in the language, and — this is wild — actually appreciates things like human psychology and the affects of culture in shaping who we are and how we think. Who’da thunk these would be effective investigative techniques?

Oh yeah, debuting director Jeffrey Nachmanoff — whose previous credits include the script for the entertaining but preposterous global-climate-disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow — and his coscreenwriter here, comedian/philosopher/playwright Steve Martin (The Pink Panther, Bowfinger) will be in the work camps with us, too. (Hoorah!) Because they’ve dared further: they remind us here what small-c conservative used to mean. Things like “Know your enemy, and don’t let him push your buttons — push his buttons instead.” Things like “Torture doesn’t work, but the Constitution does.”

And this is the best thing: If Traitor is suggesting — or, with Guy Pearce-fueled, Roy Clayton-style blunt level-headedness, flat-out stating — that since 9/11 we’ve let our enemies push our buttons, and that perhaps we should try to rebalance ourselves and regain some equilibrium, it presents a fantasy of what that might look like that is wrapped up in a hugely clever, uniquely suspenseful movie. The genius of Traitor — which is by far one of the best movies of 2008 so far — is how effortlessly it works on all its many levels. Put aside that this is a tense and engrossing action movie: that’s comparatively easy. Harder is managing to depict the fight against terrorism as a police procedural — call it CSI meets DHS — and making that seem like the obvious way to go about it, as if any other response (like, say, a massive invasion of a noninvolved nation) would be simply ridiculous. The sad part of this is that the film is fantasy — it may be too idealistic in the current ethos as anything other than a night at the movies.

If that’s all it has to be, fine. It works there, too. Clayton is hunting down rogue American Samir Horn (Don Cheadle [Reign Over Me, Talk to Me], in perhaps his most intensely fascinating performance yet), who appears to be deeply involved in a Middle Eastern-born, al Qaeda-esque plot to unleash multiple simultaneous suicide attacks on the United States. We may have some suspicions about what Horn is up to, but I’m so glad I had not seen any TV ads or trailers for the film before I saw the film, because they give too much away. Still, don’t despair if you have seen them, because there’s still plenty of suspense to be had: how those suspicions resolve is only the beginning of it. Sometimes these kinds of movies are clever in their setups but then don’t know how to follow through, don’t know what to do with their clever ideas — this isn’t one of those movies: it just keeps getting better and cleverer and more engrossing.

Traitor is the best that movies can be, in lots of ways. It’s familiar but still gripping — there were plot elements that, in retrospect, I should have seen coming, but didn’t. It’s surprising in the unexpected thematic turns it takes, in its exploration of what it means to fight a war the smart way, by getting into the head of your enemy… and that goes for soldiers on both sides of the war. (The always wonderful Saïd Taghmaoui [Vantage Point, The Kite Runner] as the terrorist Omar is more sympathetic than you’d expect; one moment that sticks with me is when he laments that he doesn’t feel comfortable speaking in his native language anymore, he’s so used to English.) Words like traitor and terrorism come to have multiple meanings that depend on your perspective. Concepts such as paranoia get pushed to extremes; ones like “you don’t defeat an empire by fighting by the rules” will annoy those who don’t want to be reminded that that would have sounded like good advice to the fathers of the American Revolution.

A movie like Traitor is terribly dangerous to a certain mindset, of course. The film doesn’t suggest that you must agree with your enemy’s motivations, but it does imply that unless you understand them, you’re doomed to defeat, or at least to a more protracted war than might otherwise be necessary. And as you soon as you concede that your enemy might have rational motives, well, you’re halfway to the point at which you might have to concede that your own motives are merely just another perspective, if a perfectly reasonable one, on thing that aren’t so black-and-white as you first thought.


MPAA: rated PG-13 for intense violent sequences, thematic material and brief language

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
  • Kallie

    Did anyone happen to catch the Don Cheadle skit on the Jimmy Kimmel Show last night? It was a goofy behind-the-scenes look at his new film Traitor, and it had me laughing non-stop! He’s such a great actor, and it’s nice to see he has an awesome sense of humor too! Traitor is in theaters now. If you missed the skit, you can find it here:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1wzOOwvRJ_E

  • Hasimir Fenring

    it might be a good idea if the people hunting down Islamofascist suicide bombers might — get this — be fluent in Arabic.

    I’ve offered my proficiency in the Korean language to the government, which claims it desperately needs Korean speakers. So far, no response. Why? Well, I don’t know exactly, but I know that FBI field agents can’t have lived outside our country for more than three continuous years.

    I spent five years immersing myself in Korean culture, learning their language, customs, and modes of thought. You can see how the government can’t possibly find that relevant to dealing with Korea.

    “you don’t defeat an empire by fighting by the rules” will annoy those who don’t want to be reminded that that would have sounded like good advice to the fathers of the American Revolution.

    You remind me of a mention in Philip K. Dick’s wonderful The Man in the High Castle of British SAS soldiers committing war crimes against the Nazis when Britain was on the verge of losing the war. (It’s an alternate history.) I caught myself cheering…because, you know, they were Nazis, so it was okay, right?

    Right?

  • misterb

    Don’t be so tough on the TSA security people. It’s not a minimum wage job; it’s a government position that gets retirement benefits this Silicon Valley executive envies. But more to the point, they are educated people who realize that what they do is merely theater – that determined terrorists aren’t going to be stopped by removing their shoes. However, theater is produced for the audience, and we, the traveler are the audience for this performance. As long as the act brings us peace of mind, and keeps people flying – it’s being successful.

  • MaryAnn

    Who says the act is bringing us peace? Is this like the magic tiger-repelling rock I carry in my pocket?

    And you *like* being performed at?

  • Drew Ryce

    Major Spoilers









    I am disturbed by the clever plot twist ending.
    Horn has an easier way of ending the threat that doesn’t include killing the 30+ jihadists or the innocent bus driver and whatever poor bastard was just trying to get to Omaha that weekend.
    Horn has full control of the bombs without supervision for long periods of time. Swap out the Semex for wrapped bricks of similar looking building putty. Also, write out the names and addresses of his 30+ would be bombers and drop the list in the US mail to his contact or after his contacts death the FBI agent. Even if the list is received days too late it doesn’t matter. Without the bombs the moles are harmless and easy to round up. If they escape back to wherever okay nobody is dead and even an amazingly bad customs system can keep them out of play in the future.
    Where the bombers go through with the attempted bombings (and not one backed out or just missed the bus?) the detonators going off (app force of several large fire works of the illegal but non-lethal variety) in their bags on buses in the middle of various Hometown USA highways is pretty much a guarantee of instant capture.
    In the film version Horn has handed out dozens of bombs to dozens of jihadists in the hope that they will all follow orders and die. What if one missed the bus? Might he not then decide to just finish off his mission at the local shopping mall?

    I have to say that this point ruined for me what was till then a fine film.

  • Bill

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> SPOILERS

  • MaryAnn

    See, I think the twist about them all being on the same bus is brilliant. Yes, the poor bus driver… but I think it was far more likely that the Cheadle character would have been discovered giving fake bombs to the bombers. He needed to maintain his cover and his plausibility — this way, he minimized the loss of life to, mostly, those who wanted to die anyway.

  • Bill

    Fair enough. It just seemed to me a bit too tidy, even with the loss of innocent life. Too ordinary as far as endings go, maybe? For most of the movie, I felt like I was seeing something very different and very frightening. When the bus exploded, it seemed that ‘Traitor’ moved from ‘United 93’ territory to ‘Die Hard: With a Vengeance’ territory. Not that that is a bad thing, I suppose.

  • MaryAnn

    I thought it was immensely clever. I was on the edge of my seat trying to figure out how the bombers were going to be stopped — or even wondering whether the movie would be daring enough *not* to stop them. And I never saw this coming… and I like how it managed to both stop them and not stop them. I didn’t see anything “ordinary” about it.

  • Drew Ryce

    Yes, it was a clever ending and I certainly did not see it coming. That the excitement of the plot twist was overwhelmed almost immediately by the understanding that the hero had just killed a bus driver (and at least a few innocents) may say more about me than the film.
    I will agree it is a fine film, intelligently done.

  • Bill

    “I like how it managed to both stop them and not stop them” – MAJ
    “it was a clever ending and I certainly did not see it coming” – Drew

    Agreed. And I suppose “ordinary” is not a fair description. My criticism is very minor and ‘Traitor’ and ‘In Bruges’ are the best films I’ve seen this year, but I did have a slight eye roll reaction to the twist. I guess I was sitting there expecting something even more “daring” and was a little dissapointed when the shit didn’t completely hit the fan – mostly because I thought there was a real chance that it might. Not sure what that says about me beyond the fact that I like really unhappy endings. In movies, of course, not in life.

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