"The War Within" contains provocative points inside a dull package. Tracking the creation of a post-9/11 terror cell in New York and how one cell member struggles spending his last days with an innocent family who's housing him, pic is a frustrating example of a film confronting vital issues without making them cinematically engaging.

A correction was made to this review on Oct. 10, 2005.

An honorable but failed attempt to dramatize the dynamics that propel a basically good man to become a suicide bomber, “The War Within” contains provocative points inside a dull package. Tracking the creation of a post-9/11 terror cell in New York and how one cell member struggles spending his last days with an innocent family who’s housing him, pic is a frustrating example of a film confronting vital issues without making them cinematically engaging. Gotham and Los Angeles prior to Stateside rollout will draw newshound auds and some media attention, but interest will quickly fade.

As intimate drama burrowing into the hearts and minds of terrorists, director Joseph Castelo’s second feature looks paltry next to Hany Abu-Assad’s galvanizing Palestinian terror cell drama, “Paradise Now.” Script by lead actor Ayad Akhtar, Castelo and Tom Glynn tends toward simplistic conflicts and on-the-nose dialogue.

First seen being kidnapped from his Paris digs and subjected to torture in a murky detention center, Pakistani engineering student Hassan (Akhtar) has been transformed over a three year period into a radical Jihadist smuggled into New York under the leadership of Khalid (Charles Daniel Sandoval). Castelo intermittently cuts back to Hassan’s torture sessions, drawing a clear and striking connection between the punishment and his radicalization.

It’s perhaps the strongest and most political idea in “The War Within” — which also posits that a Pakistani cell is able to work in security-conscious Gotham to craft a plan to detonate several bridges and Grand Central Station.

Hassan’s longtime friend and upstanding family man Sayeed (Firdous Bamji) welcomes him into his home, with wife Farida (Sarita Choudhury), sister Duri (Nandana Sen) and young son Ali (Varun Sriram). Contrast between the ultra-serious cell, in which Hassan is the most devout member, and Sayeed’s moderate, middle-class home plants the seeds for a clash of wills and values.

Pic never follows through on the promising set-up, though, tending toward scenes just a shade from TV-standard obviousness and conversations generally bereft of subtext.

Hassan’s greatest challenge is his attraction to pretty Duri, who works near the Grand Central complex and senses something wrong with the new houseguest. Hassan must also digest the anti-Jihadist commentary of a local imam — a scene that rings of the filmmakers straining to balance the implicit debate between Islam’s warring sides.

While Sayeed and Farida are clueless to Hassan’s activities — quite a stretch, given that he’s hatching his bombs in their basement — little Ali seems open to Hassan’s ideology, even if he can’t possibly absorb its meaning. Interaction between the terrorist and little boy is both chilling and unsettlingly sweet.

Akhtar carries by far the heaviest load in the ensemble, and allows his character only rare flashes of anger that suggest his bottled-up emotions. Other perfs are dependent on the pic’s uneven dialogue.

Lisa Rinzler’s lensing was marred in the print projected at Toronto, which rendered her nighttime shooting so pitch black that characters were often indistinguishable. Given the subject matter, coverage in city locations and especially of Grand Central is downright miraculous. A major contributor to the pic’s ultimately sorrowful mood is David Holmes’ dark, minimalist score.

The War Within

Production

A Magnolia Pictures release of an HDNet Films production in association with Coalition Films. (International sales: 2929 Intl., Beverly Hills.) Produced by Jason Kliot, Joana Vicente, Tom Glynn. Executive producers, Todd Wagner, Mark Cuban. Co-producers, Gretchen McGowan, Per Melita. Directed by Joseph Castelo. Screenplay, Ayad Akhtar, Castelo, Tom Glynn.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, DV), Lisa Rinzler; editor, Malcolm Jamieson; music, David Holmes; music supervisor, Tracy McKnight; production designer, Stephanie Carroll; art director, Ernesto Solo; costume designer, Sylvia Grieser; sound (Dolby Digital), Giles Khan; supervising sound editors, Chic Ciccolini III, Daniel Pagan; associate producers, Michael G. Pollard, Will Battersby, Tory Tunnell; assistant director, Cecily Kaston; casting, Cindy Tolan. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Discovery), Sept. 12, 2005. Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Ayad Akhtar, Firdous Bamji, Nandana Sen, Sarita Choudhury, Charles Daniel Sandoval, Varun Sriram. (English, Urdu, Arabic dialogue)
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