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KON-TIKI

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C

The famous trans-Pacific voyage undertaken in 1947 by Thor Heyerdahl, the adventurous Norwegian ethnologist, to buttress his unconventional notion that Polynesia had been populated not from Asia but the Americas is dramatized with visual dexterity but emotional vapidity in Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg’s “Kon-Tiki.”

The picture is titled, of course, after the balsa-wood raft on which Heyerdahl and five companions sailed some 5000 miles from the coast of Peru to Raroia Atoll over the course of 101 days—the vessel itself named after an Incan sun-god who supposedly vanished sailing into the ocean (according to Heyerdahl, of course, winding up in Polynesia). The explorer famously told the story in a book that was one of the surprise best-sellers of the late forties, and it was repeated in the Oscar-winning 1950 documentary that added to his fame.

The yarn would seem to be the stuff of engrossing drama. That it isn’t here is really the fault of Petter Skavlan, who feels it necessary to invent incident and conflict, to little effect, while shortchanging the actual record, and who—together with star Pal Sverre Hagen—fashions a portrait of Heyerdahl that depicts him as something more like a cult leader than a charismatic adventurer. Whenever the cinematic Heyerdahl is confronted by difficulty, his answer is always merely “have faith”—and he seems positively certain that he knows exactly how “Tiki” made the voyage fifteen hundred years ago and obsessed about following his lead. (The smile that Hagen affects in each case, unfortunately, seems more creepy than reassuring.)

After the perfunctory material that shows Heyerdahl failing to secure support for his project from prestigious outfits like the National Geographic Society, he’s shown easily winning over the Peruvian president, who snaps his fingers to enlist help from the US Navy, turning the entire planning of the expedition into a simpleminded tale of the victory of sheer eagerness over grumpy pedantry. That’s of a piece with Heyerdahl’s accidental meeting with Herman Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), presented as a bumbling, overweight refrigerator salesman who begs to go along despite his lack of expertise. In fact, Watzinger was a well-respected scientist whose abilities are really underplayed here for supposed dramatic effect. The portrayal of him on the raft as a loose cannon who goes bonkers at moments of stress seems especially unfair—especially since Heyerdahl’s own account emphasizes how professional and controlled the crew (Including Watzinger) was throughout the experience. The reality of the enterprise was certainly sufficient to make such spurious dressing-up of the facts unnecessary.

Making matters worse is the fact that apart from Heyerdahl and Watzinger, the film fails to apply much effort to characterizing the remaining four crew members. Yes, one is a taciturn cameraman, another a fellow overcoming his fears from a previous crisis, and the others radio operators who occasionally butt heads. But we never get to know them as individuals; they obstinately remain props in a sort of grown-up version of a boys’ adventure tale (an effect exacerbated by an early scene in which Thor, as a boy, takes a risk on the Norwegian ice that nearly costs him his life—with his childhood pals just a bunch of happy or concerned faces, surrounding him too).

That said, “Kon-Tiki” is a nice-looking film, with luminous cinematography by Geir Hartly Andreassen and expert period detail in the scenes on land. The effects are by and large good enough, though the sharks that play a major role in some scenes aren’t much of an advance on Bruce of “Jaws” fame.

The film skirts entirely the persuasiveness of Heyerdahl’s hypothesis about the populating of Polynesia, preferring to stick to the simplistic notion that his voyage somehow proved it—though that’s hardly the case. (After all, demonstrating that such a journey could have been made isn’t the same thing as proving it was.) In a way that’s too bad, since the scientific dispute is an interesting and revealing one. On the other hand, covering it would have extended an already overlong film still further (or worse, invited a sequel). And as it is, most travelers will be happy to disembark when the credits roll.

THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST

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C

Especially given recent events in Boston, it’s a salutary project to try to understand how Muslim immigrants who have lived in the US for a considerable time can be radicalized. And though there’s no act of terrorism in “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”—at least not of the Boston variety—that’s what Mira Nair’s adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s novel is about. It’s an earnest, serious film, but ultimately one that fails to satisfactorily dramatize the subject—or to transcend a bare, frustrating didacticism in the telling.

To be sure, there is an attempt to give the story the air of a suspense thriller by presenting it in the form of a tense conversation between the title character, Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed)—now a university teacher in Pakistan suspected of radical dealings—and American journalist Bobby Lincoln (Live Schreiber) in a coffeehouse filled with Khan’s volatile students, all the while being watched by US intelligence agents headed by Martin Donovan. (The background to the interview is the kidnapping of one of Khan’s colleagues, a westerner who was snatched off the streets and is now a hostage threatened with death.)

But this set-up really doesn’t create much real suspense, despite divulging secrets along the way (about Lincoln as well as Khan), partially because the revelations aren’t terribly surprising, but also because the explanations presented for Khan’s turn from westernized yuppie to committed traditionalist (and nationalist) are banal, and carry an unfortunately hagiographic tone, turning him into a long-suffering, saintly figure. And though one senses that Nair is grappling for a more complex portrait, her efforts end up opaque and fragmented, never taking hold.

So what is it that changes Khan, who emigrated to the US to go to an Ivy League school and then, once graduated, took a job with a Wall Street firm that specializes—like Bain Capital—in analyzing businesses to make recommendations about strengthening their bottom lines. Swiftly ascending the ranks under the guidance of his oily, shrewd mentor (Kiefer Sutherland), Khan also profited by linking up with Erica (Kate Hudson), the photographer daughter of the firm’s CEO, whom he meets in one of those cute, serendipitous encounters (in Central Park, no less) that would really be more at home in a romantic comedy than here. Khan’s success in the materialistic New York financial world is the fulfillment of his dream, even though back home his poet father (Om Puri) has serious reservations about the path his son has chosen.

But Khan’s path is irreparably altered by 9/11, which initiates a stream of indignities, ranging from intrusive searches at airports and profiling by local police and federal agents to suspicious glances from colleagues at the office and even what he perceives as a betrayal by Erica, who uses his experience as inspiration for her latest photo exhibit. (The only co-worker who remains friendly, in one of the script’s most heavy-handed moves, is a genial African-American, played by Nelsan Ellis—another societal outsider in the privileged white world, you see.) His reaction leads him to go back to his Pakistani roots and finally to reject his westernized persona—and his cushy job—when his firm sends him to Istanbul to assess the viability of a publishing firm specializing in Middle Eastern culture and ordering it closed. Rather than falling in with that decision, he quits and returns to Pakistan to become a teacher and (the CIA estimates) a dangerous rabble-rouser.

But has his embrace of his Pakistani pride actually led him to the promotion of—and even participation in—violence? And is the American desire to retrieve the hostage professor really a matter of altruism? Those are the questions that “The Reluctant Fundamentalism” tries to address. But by doling out clues through Khan’s monologue-cum-flashbacks, the process becomes more than a little didactic—and frustrating. Khan chooses to tell his story in a way designed to keep many things hidden until the screenplay can spring them for maximum impact, and the result is at once simplistic and opaque. You understand why the picture is constructed as it is, but the effect is to make one both impatient as the narrative progresses and unsatisfied when the conclusion finally arrives. It’s also curious that apart from one scene in Turkey, the religious dimension is given very short shrift.

Still, the film has virtues. Nair and cinematographer Declan Quinn make good use of the Pakistani locales, achieving a real sense of place and atmosphere (the astute use of music by Michael Andrews is a definite asset in this regard, too). Ahmed cuts an attractive figure as Khan, though the character’s reserve doesn’t allow him to shine, and Sutherland certainly carries an aura of quiet menace. Less impressive are Schreiber and Hudson, though both get by, while Donovan is simply wasted in a stock part. On the other hand it’s always good to see the authoritative Puri, even when as here he’s not given enough to do, and Haluk Bilginer makes a strong impression as the Turkish publisher as well.

One has to respect Nair for her ambition. But though one can admire the film, that’s balanced by regret for its flaws.