Tuesday, April 07, 2009


Traitor (2008) focuses on an undercover Muslim operative for an American intelligence group. Early in the film American intelligence agents believe he has gone over to the other side, the enemy side, because he's been out of contact for five years. The question of which side he is really on is not resolved until relatively late in the film. Don Cheadle plays the main character, Samir Horn, and as usual he does a fine job of inhabiting the role. Cheadle does most of his acting through facial expressions. His inexpressiveness becomes a source of expression—though in other films, such as Hotel Rwanda (2004)—he plays expressive, emotional characters.

Part of the difficulty for the American security agents in Traitor is the fact that Samir is a Muslim. It's easier for them to assume that he has thrown in his lot with the terrorists than it would be if he were a Methodist or Episcopalian. Only gradually, as they follow his exploits, do the American agents begin to realize where his true allegiance lies. Samir is a deeply devout Muslim who believes he should avoid the sacrifice of human life at all costs. He is a pacifist. When his actions through no fault of his own lead to the deaths of several workmen, he is horrified.

Samir has moral and religious principles. As an undercover agent he finds himself in situations where he must compromise those principles in order to prevent carnage and loss of life. The compromises cost him deeply, and at the film's end he has broken off both with the Muslim terrorists he had infiltrated and with the American intelligence agents.

The trouble with this film is the almost complete absence of tension or suspense. It should matter to us that Samir may or may not have betrayed his country. It should matter to us that terrorists are plotting attacks on the United States. Will they succeed? Intellectually, the film makes us interested in what will happen. But it does not really make us care. Traitor is a film that operates within the parameters of a suspense thriller, so it is a problem that there is no suspense.

The film was directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff, who cowrote the screenplay with Steve Martin, among others. Martin also coproduced the film. It's too bad that a film focused on such an interesting main character, played by such a fine actor, exploring such crucial issues as extremism, racial profiling, religious prejudice, and terrorism, cannot arouse more interest or concern in its viewers, at least in this viewer.

No comments: