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TRAITOR (2008) *** movie review by COOP

Posted on September 2nd, 2008
Posted on September 2nd, 2008


Fear fuels the first half of “Traitor” by suggesting that even the most harmless-looking man or woman on the street could suddenly blow themselves up in the middle of a crowd. Then the story turns the tables by revealing a deeper message: The vast majority of Muslims find acts of terror as repugnant as Westerners, and some Muslims touched by the violence will sacrifice anything to end it.

Don Cheadle stars as Samir, a Sudanese national who immigrates to the U.S. after witnessing his father killed in a car bomb. Samir’s American mother raises him in the states, but the policies of the West embitter him. After a stint in the military, he becomes a mercenary, selling custom-made bomb detonators to the highest bidder. His shady dealings lead him to do business with the terrorist Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui) in Yemen. Along with the Yemen military, an FBI agent Roy Clayton (Guy Pierce) captures Samir and Omar, placing them both in a desert prison. While incarcerated, the two men form a tight bond through games of chess and their strict devotion to Islam. After a daring and successful prison break, Omar offers Samir a chance to serve his cause by building bombs for the movement. Samir reluctantly accepts but, little does Omar know, Samir is a deep-cover U.S. agent. Carter (Jeff Daniels), a government security contractor, is the only one who knows Samir’s true intentions and attempts to help him bring the terrorists to justice before Samir’s own bombs kill U.S. citizens.

Let the Oscar buzz begin. Don Cheadle’s passion project, which he co-produced, may get him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Cheadle portrays Samir as a complex character torn by two cultures, yet rooted deeply in his beliefs. He suffers deep sadness when he learns one of his bombs has killed innocents, then transforms it into false disappointment in front of the terrorists by exclaiming he hoped it would’ve killed more. I’ve yet to see a better dramatic performance from any actor this year (save Heath Ledger’s in “The Dark Knight”) and unless several crop up to surprise us at the end of the year, I expect Cheadle to secure a nomination. France’s Saïd Taghmaoui frequently plays crafty Middle Eastern villains. His role as Omar is no exception as he plays a scholar who often seems uncomfortable with the decisions he must make as a terrorist. It’ll be a switch to see him play the hero “Breaker” in the “G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra” film next year. Jeff Daniels gets an all-to-brief appearance that could’ve been expanded, but Guy Pierce nails his role as Agent Clayton, a worthy adversary/ally to Cheadle’s Samir.

Commercials are touting this film as a fast-paced thriller, yet it’s more of a sober, plodding drama. When the Yemen military throws Cheadle’s character in prison, you can tell it’ll be awhile before he gets out, so get comfortable. This slow pace results in long stretches of tedium, but rewards viewers with some expertly-crafted moments of tension. The terrorist plot of arming fifty homicide bombers and placing each on a loaded passenger bus in random places across the U.S. is a terrifyingly real plot point. Cheadle’s sneaky plan for thwarting the attack accounts for the greatest moment in the film, yet the slow pacing lessens the overall impact.

The strength of the film lies in the strength of the main character. Only the strongest of human beings could tolerate the sacrifices, deceptions and tragedies Samir faces. Hiding his personal conflict seems impossible; yet he betrays his comrades, alienates his family and evades his own allies without letting his mask slip in front of anyone but the audience. Even more surprising are his motives for accepting this thankless job. He doesn’t care much for the U.S. or its policies, he identifies with the anger of the terrorists and he feels the ever-present sting of the world persecuting his culture. Instead of fighting for these for the ideals of his employers, he fights for the ideals of Islam and their peaceful teachings. He is a fanatic, but a fanatic for peace and that’s the only thing separating him from the terrorists. Allied with the terrorists, Samir would be our worst nightmare, which is why it’s so powerful and compelling to see him working for our side. Making the distinction between the peaceful Islam and the terrorist fanatics emerges as the overwhelming message by the end of the film. It’s a preachy one, but obviously a message the creators of “Traitor” feel the need to express.

Some will compare “Traitor” to the “Bourne” franchise, but “Traitor” is light on the action, heavy on the brooding. It might slake your thirst for intrigue until the next Bond effort “Quantum of Solace” arrives in November. See it for Cheadle if nothing else.

Noteworthy: Steve Martin got a “Story By” credit for this one. Yes… Steve Martin, the comedian. I’m still trying to figure that one out myself. Who knew he was so hip to Middle Eastern culture and their issues?

Trailer below…

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