13
Jan
09

Review: The War Within

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American cinema has enjoyed a long love affair with the antihero, but the protagonist of The War Within may just take the cake: Hassan is an Islamic fundamentalist plotting a suicide bombing in New York. Though that fact alone may keep many away from this film, director Joseph Castelo has constructed something worth seeing: a smart, humanistic portrait of fear, paranoia, and absolutism in a post-9/11 world. The film opens in Paris, where Pakistani-born engineering student Hassan (Ayad Akhtar) is apprehended and wrongly accused of terrorist activities. Three years later, the freshly radicalized Hassan sneaks into the United States as a sleeper agent for an unnamed terrorist organization, planning to detonate himself in Grand Central Terminal. Staying with the family of his oldest friend, Sayeed (Firdous Bamji), in a quiet New Jersey suburb, Hassan finds it difficult to reconcile his new (and secret) extremist views with the more relaxed outlook of his hosts, who are devout Muslims yet enjoy the fruits of secular society. The world-in-microcosm setup could have easily led to staginess and sermonizing, but both Akhtar (who also co-wrote the script) and the other leads steer admirably clear of actorly performances, even when delivering some of the film’s more stilted exchanges: “You’re forgetting yourself, brother.” “I’m forgetting nothing.” “You’re forgetting everything!” Flashbacks fill in some of the details of Hassan’s imprisonment, interrogation, and torture sessions, but the script seems intentionally vague about what precisely drove him to such a hard-line stance against America in such a short time. And the movie, after all, is as much thriller as character study: Whether Hassan gives in to Sayeed’s worldview has implications for many lives besides his own. To Castelo’s credit, that’s not the only question The War Within turns on; another is whether Sayeed’s young son will give in to Hassan’s worldview. By the end, it’s clear that the filmmakers’ choice of main character wasn’t simply an attention-getter, but rather an attempt to understand how America is perceived in the world at large. No matter what the rest of our movies may tell us, it’s not always as a land of heroes— anti- or otherwise.

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