A provocative political thriller about a conflicted African-born Muslim American deeply immersed in the worlds of jihad and espionage, “Traitor” brandishes physical verisimilitude and intelligent seriousness but proves unable to really get inside its chameleon-like central character. Reminiscent of “Syriana” in its globe-hopping approach and desire to portray the roots and complexities of terrorism rather than just use it for melodramatic purposes, Jeffrey Nachmanoff’s well-mounted feature nonetheless feels more conventional due to its straighter-line narrative. Commercial prospects look just OK.
Samir Horn (Don Cheadle) carries a load of extreme influences, life experiences and contradictions that rep both a unique professional blessing and an impossible personal burden. Having witnessed as a youth his Muslim Brotherhood-friendly father blown up by a car bomb in his native Sudan, Samir made it to the States, became a special operations officer and ultimately seems to have gotten a bit too cozy with the Muhajadeen in Afghanistan.
Where that leaves him politically and emotionally now is anyone’s guess. He’s apparently not averse to lending his expertise with explosives to the local Islamicists in Yemen, for which he’s thrown into a perfectly delightful prison, where his polite manner and impeccable American-accented English attract notice among the thugs. All the same, he establishes a rapport with Swiss-educated jihadist Omar (Said Taghmaoui), with whom he eventually manages a spectacular escape.
Since he’s a U.S. citizen and former military man, Samir merits the attention of FBI agents Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Max Archer (Neal McDonough), who in short order also become preoccupied by a suicide bombing of Americans in Spain and a fatal attack on the U.S. consulate in Nice, a job personally engineered by Samir. This slim, quiet man moves about as inconspicuously as a shadow, his successes leading terrorism big shots to engage him to coordinate a massive upcoming attack in the American heartland.
Nachmanoff, best known for co-writing “The Day After Tomorrow,” capably handles all the location juggling — other destinations include Chicago, Washington, D.C., Toronto and Nova Scotia — on what must have been a limited budget. He also creates absorbing scenes involving the jihadist inner circles, as the plotters lounge on the Riviera, recruit in Marseille and strategize in London. When zero hour approaches for the widespread mayhem planned for the U.S., it’s a tense and real question over what will happen.
Still, the odd, enigmatic figure at the center of it all somehow muffles the film’s impact. Early on, Samir admits, “I don’t feel at home anywhere,” and subsequent dialogue is larded with such comments as, “He’s caught between traditional Islam and the West.” Similarly, Nachmanoff and Cheadle, the latter also a producer here, seem caught between sustaining the ambiguity of Samir’s position for suspense — is he really a good guy or bad guy? — and genuinely examining this tragically torn figure.
The first things to go in Cheadle’s portrayal of such a knotted, inward man are spontaneity and a sense of humor. Add to this a latent sense of self-importance about such a project and the result is an overly cautious, restrained and dry characterization of an individual who’s been robbed of a true sense of self; a volatile, exciting actor when he wants to be, Cheadle keeps himself on as tight a leash as does Samir.
The tale takes on an unexpected added layer midway through with the arrival of a wild-card character, rogue CIA vet Carter (Jeff Daniels), with motives and connections of his own.
Old- and new-style intelligence tactics are effectively limned by McDonough, as a quick-trigger roughhouser, and Pearce, whose soft Southern accent and cushion-shot investigative technique provide welcome counterpoint to the uptight personalities of almost everyone else. Similarly, Taghmaoui’s energy balances Cheadle’s reserve in their many scenes together.
The tactile verite-style lensing by J. Michael Muro, who shot the memorable early Beirut sequence in “The Insider,” makes the diverse settings come vividly alive, abetted by Laurence Bennett’s sharp production design. Mark Kilian’s atmospheric score and Billy Fox’s lean editing keep the film on the go.