directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff
written by Steve Martin and Jeffrey Nachmanoff
starring Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Jeff Daniels, Said Taghmaoui, Neal McDonough, Archie Panjabi, Raad Rawi
It’s interesting to consider if films like this one give native would-be terrorists any concrete ideas. If not in a practical sense, then at least hypothetical. This film offers a tense, occasionally hyper real investigation into the mental landscape of those who would, in the name of Allah or without, seek to cause irrevocable damage to the structures and citizens of their adopted homelands.
Samir Horn (Cheadle) is a Sudanese-American, a devout Muslim who quotes the Koran, prays continuously and carries himself with a quiet grace. He’s also a weapon’s supplier and a bomb maker who is the target of a U.S. counterintelligence query because he seems to pop up all over their radar. He is considered a person of interest and is offered an opportunity to walk by FBI agent Roy Clayton (Pearce) in a Yemen prison if he would only cough up a few names. Instead he decides to stay in order to demonstrate his loyalty to a strict cause that he has sworn to ally himself with. He has become associated with a man named Omar (Taghmaoui) before his incarceration and he realizes the necessity of retaining his ties to the man. He continues to plot with a small band of men who have grand plans for upsetting business as usual at a variety of locations.
Horn is a man of honor. Even while we watch him gather up materials for a bombing in Nice, France, we are still amazed by his temerity and his calm. There is something else to this character which he is, for the most part, hiding considerably well. That something proves to turn the story on its head when we discover that Horn is working with the U.S. Government as a secret agent. He is in direct contact with a higher Federal employee, Carter (Daniels). Only the FBI doesn’t know and much of the film conveys the intricate relationship between the FBI and their prey. Indeed, the bureau is portrayed as a genuinely upstanding organization with a clearly defined directive that is aimed directly at affecting the worldwide surge of terrorism. Regardless of their intent, though, there is an infiltrator in their midst who routinely rattles off restricted information to his contacts. There are actually two sides to the FBI that are represented here. Clayton is a thoughtful man who studied religion and got his Masters in the Arabic language. His partner, Max Archer (McDonough) is more of the old school of using intimidation, aggression and perhaps torture to get the subjects to squeal.
This film portrays a secretive world on US shores where Arab immigrants move about with ease amongst the population. It shows how a well-structured group could do to sear their images in the minds of great swaths of the population. It’s a harrowing thought and this film brings home the reality of this potentiality with much more realism than any other film of this ilk. There is one moment in particular where it all comes to a boil and it’s shocking and relentlessly terrifying in its depiction. It raises a simple question regarding how many have to be sacrificed in order to save the whole lot. Is there an acceptable amount of collateral damage if one is marching forth to end the larger war? Pakistan and Afghanistan resonate all throughout this film only it brings the terrorists out of hiding and places them on the largest stage on earth.
The ideological backing comes from the respectable and noteworthy Nathir (Rawi) whose great plan is to unleash an almost poetically orchestrated single moment of extreme terror upon the U.S. He claims that the purpose of these actions is not the destruction of lives or property. No, he says that they are designed to strictly gain a reaction out of those in a position to make decisions and those who are not. In other words, they send a message to every American who Nathir also holds responsible for what he claims are the crimes of the U.S. government. In this context he is the most frightening agent of distress imaginable. He hides behind his sheen of incorruptibility and social standing meanwhile holding decisive anti-American sentiments he is willing to put into direct action. He has been fully integrated into American cultural life while maintaining his ties to those who would love to see this country burnt to the ground. Yes, he’s dangerous and this film does not dilute his corruptive message to all of lousy Americans who apparently are decadents who have pissed off those who prefer to think of the Koran as a weapon of war.
This is not a film that offers safe, pat psychological solutions. It is impossible, for example, to truly consider the “enemies” of this films to be evil in any sense of the world. We see them as devoted Muslims who are behaving in a manner that they feel is sanctioned by God. Rarely has such a truly religious atmosphere been portrayed in a major American film. As much as the characters are devoted, the film is equally so to unveiling the mystery surrounding the absolute allegiance to the purity of the word of God. Throughout the film, one does not forget the severity of the connection between specific acts of mayhem and the worship of Allah. It hasn’t been this spelled out before. It has been addressed but the end result is not a deification as it is in this film. Every frame in this film gives praise without succumbing to the tendency to legitimize the actions of these criminals. Still, it’s ambiguous early on as to who the criminals are and by extension, their deeds. Again, actions must be taken and innocent people will most certainly die. That is the nature of this prolonged, desperate game.
The realities that are suggested in this film are certainly more harrowing than they’ve been in recent films. But this film does more than merely suggest. It manages to live up to the promises it forges during the various maneuvers that make up the latter third of the film. They are terrible promises but they pay off in some twisted fashion leaving the viewer sickened yet strangely satisfied. It wasn’t merely a ghost ship passing in the night.
The performances in this film are uniformly excellent. Don Cheadle projects a grave unease throughout this film as his character struggles to gain foothold on the semblance of an identity. Cheadle brings a uniformity to his character that is fighting to contain the agonies that plague him. It’s Horn’s devotion to God that mitigates the struggles he faces and allows him to proceed. It doesn’t seem clear at the time but it’s most likely that Cheadle sells his character’s true identity in the early scenes when he is working within the terrorist cell. Guy Pearce is perfectly cast as an FBI man who craves deeply to learn everything he can about the nature of this beast.. Clayton is everything the FBI needs to be. He’s learned the language, and understands there are other ways than physical intimidation to get information. Pearce is solid and grounded in this role and he never lets the audience forget who he represents in the film. Said Taghmaoui is believable as a sensitive young man who has devoted his existence to a specific, divisive cause. Omar is a true believer who firmly believes in the legitimacy of his actions. He honestly wants to give God all the glory for anything he might accomplish. Jeff Daniels plays the cool Fed with great ease. His character clearly is a man on the inside who knows a great many things they tell us we’re not ready to know.
Overall, this picture has a clear message about the nature of terrorism and it’s relationship to the devoted worship of Allah. It also deals with a profound conflict that continues to persist and consume the minds and bodies of our most able citizens. The conflict is real in this film and it comes off as much more than a masturbatory cinematic exercise. It does not glorify the behaviors of those who act vigilantly to make their most egregious and heartbreaking mark on the world. It also does not offer pat, simple solutions to the dilemma but merely adds a number of nuanced voices to the dialog. These characters are complex, multi-faceted human beings who resonate long after the film has burned to a close. They speak to tragedy, to struggle, and to the never-ending quest to get to the bottom of this most aching torment.