If you’re looking for a film that tries seriously—if imperfectly—to depict the psychological makeup of an Islamic terrorist, you should seek out Joseph Castelo’s modest “The War Within” (2005). Jeffrey Nachmanoff’s picture, by contrast, is a much slicker, far more conventional sort of thriller, one that uses the current international threat as the background for a familiar sort of cat-and-mouse chase with an abundance of twists and turns. It even borrows a basic plot element from Hitchcock, though from one of his lesser-known pictures, the 1936 “Sabotage.” (Of course, there’s not much better a model for this sort of thing.)
But if it doesn’t break much new ground, and gets overly preachy in proclaiming that people shouldn’t be judged too precipitously, “Traitor” makes for a reasonably good ride. Among studio pictures that have fed into the post-9/11 climate, it’s less noisy that “The Kingdom,” less morose and chronologically challenged than “Rendition,” and less cluttered than “Syriana.”
And it’s fortunate to star Don Cheadle, who’s a strong, if rather impassive, central presence as Samir Horn, a Sudan-born U.S. citizen who once served in Special Forces but now appears to have joined a Muslim terrorist group and to be using his skill with explosives and computers to help execute a destructive campaign in Europe and America. On his trail is dedicated, sensitive FBI agent Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce), whose complicated background—he’s a Southerner, and the son of a Baptist preacher who also holds a Ph.D. in Arabic Studies—makes him willing to look at his quarry with greater understanding than his hard-driving partner Max Archer (Neal McDonough). (Is that character’s name a reference to Miles from “The Maltese Falcon”?)
On the terrorist side of the divide are Omar (Said Taghmaoui), with whom Samir escapes from a Yemeni prison after the two are caught in a sale of plastic explosives; Fareed (Alyy Khan), Omar’s slick, ostensibly westernized boss; and Nathir (Raad Rawi), the head honcho and chief money-man of the group—who also has a contingent of sleeper agents, would-be martyrs, awaiting his orders in the United States.
“Traitor” falls neatly into two parts, dividing at roughly the halfway point. In the first section, Samir, a devout Muslim but a trafficker in weaponry, is arrested by Yemeni authorities working with the FBI and consigned to prison with Omar, who’s initially suspicious of him but eventually befriends him and includes him in the escape. Soon Samir is introduced to Fareed in France and assists in an attack on an American consulate there. And then he’s made a prime player in a planned assault on the U.S. itself. Clayton, meanwhile sets his sights on Horn, as does a joker in the deck—an enigmatic American intelligence agent named Carter (Jeff Daniels), who doesn’t like sharing information with anyone else.
That proves a real problem for Samir in the second half of the story, which concentrates on the group’s scheme to send a powerful message to the American public. As becomes clear, everything that’s preceded is susceptible to an alternate explanation, leading to a conclusion that’s sure to satisfy, in the conventional nick-of-time thriller fashion of which Hitchcock was a master. (Just think of the distinction he drew between shock and suspense, and the example he used.)
Cheadle anchors the picture with a performance that succeeds in keeping one guessing about the character while earning him more sympathy, especially in the early going, than one might think possible. And he’s well matched by Pearce, who gives greater shading to the FBI man than is usual in this sort of fare. The supporting turns by Taghmaoui, Khan, Rawi, Daniels, and Archie Panjabi as a lady friend of Samir’s from his Chicago days are all solid as well. On the technical side, cinematographer J. Michael Muro makes excellent use of the various locales both here and abroad, and though the editing by Billy Fox could have been punched up at a few points (especially when Samir is simply walking about gloomily), it—as well as Laurence Bennett’s production design, Rocco Matteo’s art direction and Mark Kilian’s score—are basically fine.
“Traitor” is a film that, like its main character, is ultimately less radical than it appears, dressing up a fairly old-fashioned scenario in contemporary trappings. But simply as a political thriller, it delivers the goods pretty efficiently.