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This Week in Film: Traitor

Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic

This post-9/11 look at terrorism promises nuance but disappoints with a convoluted plot.

ImageIt really seems as though terrorists hardly existed in Hollywood before 9/11. I know this really isn’t totally the case but if you think about it most terrorist movies before that fateful day took place on airplanes and were mostly hostage movies. They were pretty simple stuff – give us what we want and we’ll let everyone go. Now things have become much more complicated. The terrorists in post 9/11 movies no longer care to bargain for anything, they simply want to blow things and people up, get some publicity over their acts and move on to the next target. Things have gotten so bad they believe there really isn’t anything left to say or bargain for. This brings us to Traitor, the latest film about modern day terrorism where Don Cheadle plays Samir Horn, a Muslim who may or may not be a terrorist. 

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When we first see Samir, he’s delivering arms to a terrorist group in Yemen, but when the C.I.A. interferes in the deal, Samir finds himself in a Yemeni prison alongside other terrorists including the man he was making the arms deal with, Omar (Said Taghmaoui). At the same time C.I.A. operatives Roy Clayton (Guy Pierce) and Max Archer (Neal McDonough) are investigating a car bombing that they believe links back to Samir. In prison, Samir and Omar become friends and after a prison break they begin to plot their next bombing. Samir is a weapons expert and he can put together any kind of bomb the terrorist organization needs, this makes him not only a valuable asset to the group’s leader Fareed (Aly Khan) but also puts him on the top of the U.S. government’s terrorist watch list.

It’s obvious from the start that Traitor wants to make a couple of things clear – that all Muslims are not terrorists and that all terrorists don’t look the same. This is a huge leap from those pre-9/11 terrorist films I mentioned, and also many of the more recent ones that we’ve seen as well. The idea that Don Cheadle would play a terrorist is a risky and brave one or so we might think. The terrorists in Traitor come from all walks of life, and are so well planted amongst us that we’d never know who they are. This seems realistic to me, and for the first half or so of the film it really feels as though there is finally a film about terrorism that gets it. Then there is a twist that we know is probably coming because what we’ve seen to that point is probably too good to be true, we feel it in our gut. Let’s just say that Samir isn’t necessarily who we think he is.

For a while it looks at though Traitor is going to head into some very dark and murky areas. Samir and his friends talk about how America has forgotten that it was once the terrorists when it came to its relations with the British. They speak about how you have to fight dirty to defeat an enemy that is far more powerful than you are. Because the film puts Cheadle into the role of a Muslim terrorist it has to effect of making it seem as though we, the Americans, are being thrust into the inner circle of these terrorists and getting a much broader view of the politics of it all. For some reason though the film decides to cop out and turn more conventional as well as convoluted.

The problem is that once we learn of who Samir really is, the entire plot becomes highly suspect. Would it really be possible for the government to go through with such a complicated scheme and keep it a secret as well? As Samir plans to blow up fifty buses simultaneously in the terrorist’s latest and boldest act, would he really be able to pull of the “switch” that might foil the plan? There is a scene towards the end of the film where several suicide bombers, each of whom are supposed to end up on different buses nervously board their intended targets, praying, and sweating all the way. Would they really not notice each other? For the sake of the film we are supposed to believe so.

In order to quell any thoughts that it wants to make a real statement or do something controversial or different, Traitor becomes just like every other espionage film we’ve seen over the last ten or so years. As we watch the plot unravel and head towards familiar and mundane territory our hearts begin to sink. Cheadle’s character shifts from an intriguing man whose beliefs have taken him into dark corner into a person that we’ve seen so many times before in films such as The Departed and Donnie Brasco although instead of the mafia it’s terrorists now. Therefore a film that could have shed some light on a controversial subject quickly becomes a cumbersome mess with an all too simplistic message.