Reviewed by Caballero Oscura
Directed by Joseph Castelo
Written by Ayad Akhtar, Joseph Castelo, Tom Glynn
It’s difficult to view any film about terrorism in the US with an open mind due to the extremely sensitive and volatile nature of the subject matter. In the wrong hands, this subject could easily lead to a sensationalized or overtly patriotic mess, simply adding to the unnecessary anti-Arab sentiment in this country. It’s questionable why any filmmaker would even attempt to mount a production focused on this topic at this juncture, let alone center it around a terrorist cell in New York City, so it’s all the more surprising that The War Within is a well-balanced, thought-provoking effort.
The film follows an American-educated Pakistani engineer named Hassan as he is accosted in Paris and imprisoned in Pakistan for no apparent reason, tortured and shown pictures of his mutilated dead brother, then released three years later. This whole sequence left me puzzled since it wasn’t made clear why he was targeted, who was torturing him, or what they wanted from him. My interpretation is that his brother was involved in a terrorist plot and was killed by US forces who then tracked down Hassan under the fear that he was also involved and the hope that he would provide more names to target. In any event, during his time in prison, his cellmate gave him a copy of the Koran which apparently led to his indoctrination into a terrorist cell. Again, how he made the leap from innocent prisoner to radical terrorist isn’t made clear, but the main purpose of this sequence was simply to provide a limited backstory for Hassan’s infiltration into the US.
Hassan is sent to New York with other members of his cell as part of a coordinated terrorist plot. They all split up to become sleeper agents until the time of the attack, which allows Hassan to contact and stay with an old friend of his named Sayeed. Sayeed is fully Americanized, loves this country, and condemns acts of terrorism, setting up an inevitable showdown between the two friends. When the other members of Hassan’s cell are captured before they can launch their attack, Hassan is left with a crushing decision: leave his one true purpose behind and return to normal life, or carry out his part of the attack on his own.
The performances are uniformly understated and believable, helping the production seem like a realistic portrayal of difficult circumstances rather than a tabloid-style movie of the week. There are no cartoonish evil terrorists or flag-waving patriots, just conflicted individuals faced with difficult choices. As a result, the movie succeeds as a well-balanced study of the effects of terrorism on the individual and the community.
Caballero Oscura is a member of The Masked Movie Snobs