If you ever wondered what Basher Tarr of the Ocean's movies (Clooney version) did prior to using his explosive expertise to pull off improbably complex heists, Traitor will fill in the blanks. Well, not really; the only thing they have in common is Don Cheadle, who stars in Traitor and was Basher Tarr in said Ocean's films.
Don't ask me why I felt the need to mention that, but as I left the theater, having just seen Traitor, I could not help but imagine them as the same character. It was a fleeting thought, to be sure, but it was there. I cannot explain it, as the characters are completely different, aside from the shared expertise with explosive materials. The tone of the two films and the approach needed for the two characters could not be farther apart.
Traitor is the sort of film that sneaks up on an audience. I remember some time ago first hearing about this film. It was during those pre-trailer, behind the scenes clips that some theaters run before showtime. Frankly, the first few times I saw it, I was convinced that it was going to be a television movie or mini-series. Of course that impression proved to be wrong.
Beyond that, the film seemed to have a very slow burn with regard to its advertising. I rarely saw any ads for it. Still, what I saw made me want to see it. Going a step further, finding that it was being released on Labor Day weekend did not inspire much confidence, considering how slow the weekend tends to be. Fortunately, I took the time to see it, as it is a very good film that is well executed, smartly written, and hardly the pure action film I was expecting.
The story starts in 1978 Sudan. We see a father and son playing chess. Following the game, the father leaves the house and gets in his car, which promptly explodes. Cut to the present day and we pick up with the child, now a grown man, Samir Horn (Don Cheadle). He is in the process of selling a shipment of explosives to a terrorist organization. We learn that Samir is a former Special Forces operative, who stayed behind in the Middle East following his tour, continuing to fight prior to turning up as this bomb maker for terrorists.
Now, a man turning to the side of terrorists and making them bombs does not necessarily sound all that special, but the movie is different, and, dare I say, brave. It is all in the portrayal of Samir Horn. What makes it so special is the depiction of a devout Muslim. Samir is a believer; his faith is an integral part of who is and drives what he does. The question is how do those beliefs influence his actions? To whom does his allegiance lie? Is he a traitor to the US? A double agent? Perhaps even a triple agent? Everything that happens is driven by his faith, and it leaves the viewer with many questions that will not be answered until much later. This includes questions for Samir himself, as he is forced to make difficult choices throughout the movie.
On the other side of the coin we meet Agents Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Max Archer (Neal McDonough). They are part of a special task force investigating the terrorist organization with which Samir is associated. The two pursue Samir tirelessly, all while disagreeing on how to approach the situation.
It is an action thriller that is heavy on the thriller. The film keeps you guessing as to what is going to happen next, with strong supporting characters in Clayton and Archer. In addition to the FBI duo, there is also CIA agent Carter (Jeff Daniels) who knows more about Samir than he is letting on to his FBI compatriots. Let us not forget Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui), the man who vouches for Samir to the leaders of the organization.
Is this a realistic film? As real as any movie is, I guess. I do not expect utter realism from films as that would be an unrealistic expectation. However, watching a film that strives for realism, I expect to be able to believe it could be real. To that end Traitor fits the bill. The politics involved, the planning, the frighteningly realistic plot to strike fear into America, every piece of the puzzle fits together while never allowing you to get a clear picture of finished work. It is actually quite good.
The film was written and directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff and based on a story written by Nachmanoff and Steve Martin (yes, that one). It is a higher quality movie than one should expect from a Labor Day release, and one that is well worth getting invested in. It paints a different picture of Muslims, one that is not often shown, and one well worth seeing.
Bottom line. What a pleasant surprise. With Don Cheadle in the lead, I had hopes this would be good, and it was nice to have my hopes validated. If you are looking for a film that is explosive and intelligent at the same time, look no further.