Traitor (2008)

Rated: PG-13 for intense violent sequences, thematic material and brief language.
Length: 110 minutes
Grade: ACAA=A
Budget: $22 million
Box Office: $26 million (24 U.S., 2 Intl., DVD)

Written by: Steve Martin (Yes, that Steve Martin), who wrote Pink Panther 1+2, Shopgirl, Bowfinger, LA Story, Roxanne, Three Amigos, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, The Jerk, etc.)
Directed (and co-written) by: Jeffrey Nachmanoff, in essentially his first major movie.
Starring: Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Neal McDonough, Said Taghmaoui, and Jeff Daniels.

Samir is an ex-US special forces bomb expert whose father was killed by terrorists who now (as a convert to Islam) sells Semtex to terrorists. Through a series of events, he winds up in the inner circle of a major terrorist network, helping them attack the United States and also drawing the attention of two FBI agents. But will he turn out to be a true traitor or something else?

Entertainment Value: A
Although some of the particular plot elements are somewhat unlikely, the overall enjoyability of this movie is really high. Don Cheadle is always good. The other actors here are acceptable. But what really makes this movie work is two things: the underlying tension of the conflict between what we see happening and what we want to see happen and the interrelated tension between wanting the FBI to stop him but also to not interfere if he’s actually doing something good.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence D, Language C, Illegality C
PG-13 is just right. The violence includes a man being thrown in front of a train, several terrorist explosions, a police assault with many people shot, and brawling in a prison. Obviously, it’s a movie about suicide terror, so violence of the worst kind is pretty much the central plot element. The language is pretty much in synch with the violence, just clean enough to not earn an R.
Significant Content: A Okay, I don’t think I can finish this review properly without giving away some major plot elements, so if you haven’t seen it but want to, quit reading/listening now and then come back and read the rest. Now, for everyone who either has seen it or doesn’t want to, there is real genius in the significant content of this movie. Don Cheadle plays a devout Muslim who lives out the core convictions of traditional Islam and therefore winds up being a hero because he invests his own life in undoing and preventing the success of those who twist and manipulate Islam toward violent ends. Imagine a white Christian going undercover in the KKK in 1930 in order to thwart their perversion of Christianity. That’s what this is. And I love it for two reasons. One is that it so very clearly contrasts real Islam with the perversion of it. The other is that it is a decidedly pro-religion movie, where God and faith are central, even though the religion is not Christianity. This is the sort of movie that I would love to have played again and again in the Middle East, and here for that matter, because those who condemn all of Islam and those who celebrate the perversion of it would benefit from seeing this excellent example of a third (and much more valuable) perspective. But what really holds this movie together (and what also makes it so sad that this only barely survived at the box office) is the fact that Samir in the end cannot celebrate what he has done. Even though he knows he did good, he is so torn with the guilt over what he had to do (even to the bad guys) in the process, that he can only just barely live with himself. He regrets even the best (most justified) of killings because he knows he is still ending a life. In other words, though he does great good, he is devastated to have had to do it in this particular way. What happens when an man of peace and love chooses to sully himself in order to stop the greatest of evils? That’s what this movie shows. He shows just how fit a man is to live when once he’s discovered something that he’s willing to die for, a reference ironically presented as affirming terrorism, though quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
What makes this movie brilliant in part is what I mentioned above about the ongoing tension which permeates the fabric of the movie due to our uncertainty about the real story as well as our conflict even if those questions are settled. Some will likely say this movie is drawing on themes of moral equivalence and relativism, but they have missed the powerful underlying moral absolutism that is driving everything here. It’s a morally complex movie, but that is not the same as being a morally ambiguous movie. I also particularly liked that the terror plot was one that is particularly inferior to other ones that could be imagined, thus it doesn’t give good ideas to would-be terrorists. Although the thing with the email sort of does.

Discussion Questions:
~One scene shows a group of beach-going tourists being killed by a terrorist. Are they stupid for risking their lives by going on vacation in a potentially dangerous area out of the US? What is the difference between risking your life for pleasure and risking your life in a remote area for the purpose of serving the needs of impoverished people?
~One man says that terrorism is not about causing damage, but about provoking a response. In what way does terrorism succeed most not by what it destroys in the attack but by what it gets us to destroy in ourselves in our response? He also says terrorism is theater, and the entire population is the audience. What does he mean? How do we participate in his agenda when we give news coverage to deliberate acts of evil? Should terrorist attacks be covered on television?
~What image of religion is given here? Do you consider this a pro-religious or anti-religious movie? Consider Agent Clayton’s comments about his father’s church.
~Which is the greater struggle in life: to combat evil in others or to eliminate evil desires in ourselves?
~After seeing Samir’s entire plan, do you agree with it?
~One of the central notions in Christian thought is that living out true religion will make you winsome and enticing to most everyone and also give you a degree of moral authority/credibility with them when they see your example. Another is that when you know who you are in relationship to God, it gives you the peace to respond wisely and without anxiety to anything around you. How do these ideas show up in this movie between Samir and Omar, Agent Clayton, and even Carter? How are humility, peace, and conviction unsettling to people who don’t have them and also morally persuasive to them? Does it bother you to see Islam portrayed in such a virtuous manner? How do you react to Samir as a character?
~“You get a suspect to talk by pushing his buttons, not by letting him push yours.” What lessons might be drawn from this about dealing with terrorists and also about what terrorists are trying to do with us?
~There are several remarks that seem like moral equivalency or criticisms of the US in this movie. When you hear them, how do you respond?
~Compare Samir to other, more famous, American hero icons such as Chuck Norris, Rambo, Dirty Harry, Jack Bauer, John McClain, Rocky, or even Batman. Does his regret and inner conflict make him more noble or less noble than these others? In which of them do you see a similar sort of inner turmoil? Would you describe them as men of peace or men of war? What about Samir? To what degree does reluctance to take up arms correlate with true heroism? Is it enough to merely fight for the right side to be a hero? How healthy are our heroes as role models? How healthy are we for idolizing them?
~As you’re watching this movie, what do you want to see happen? How does this movie frustrate you and your expectations/desires? Are you satisfied by the ending? Does Samir’s unwillingness to celebrate it dampen your own impulse to do so?
~Chess is a constant symbol in this movie, but for what? Is chess problematic because to do well at it you must be willing to sacrifice pieces? When a chess game ends, there are usually only a small number of pieces remaining on the board. Does the end of a normal chess game look like a victory worth having?
~How fair is the comparison between modern terrorism and the colonial tactics against he British? What about the comparison between the KKK and Islamic terrorism?
~“Every religion has more than one face.” Is this the primary theme of this movie?
~Samir tells Omar that Islam has been abused and used by people without Islamic hearts for their own purposes. Why does he say this? Why is it so hard to consider the possibility that your faith has been manipulated by others in this way? Discuss Omar’s reaction to this and what Samir tries to do in this scene.
~What are some of the different things that motivate people or that they try to use to motivate others in this movie? Consider fear, punishment, money, sex, power, love, admiration, and faith.
~Because we’re a democracy, do you believe that all Americans are responsible for everything done by our government in our names? Is it true that this makes us all combatants because we elect the commander-in-chief? Are we more responsible than people who do not have democracy? Even if you voted for the losing candidate, do you think you’re still fully as responsible as those who voted for the winner merely because you participated in the process? Does abstaining from voting absolve you of the results?

Overall Grade: A
Although I will tell you that most reviewers didn’t think as highly of it as I did. Well, too bad for them.

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