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.

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