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Wajahat Ali Headshot

Traitor: A Movie that Betrays Itself

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Traitor: one who betrays another's trust or is false to an obligation or duty
Traitor: one who betrays another's trust or is false to an obligation or duty

Like the protagonist of the movie, Traitor exists with conflicting loyalties and a fleeting
sense of fidelity to its honorable yet ultimately porous intentions. The Don Cheadle-headed action/thriller co-written by comedian Steve Martin and director Jeffrey
Nachmanoff inelegantly attempts to combine cardboard, blockbuster plot mechanics with
the important, philosophical musings of a complicated post 9-11 world.
If anything, this mainstream movie should be commended for having a practicing,
religious, African American Muslim as its hero -- one portrayed by a major Hollywood
celebrity, no less. Unfortunately, both due to the plot constraints of the movie and today's
geo-political realities, this character must reactively and proactively define himself
though his actions within yet another "us vs. them" narrative. As such, the quest for a
multi-faceted, dynamic Muslim character that is neither a terrorist nor a cab driver

The Muslim and titular "traitor" in question is Samir Horn [Don Cheadle], a Sudanese
born, American agent so deep undercover as an Islamic extremist bomb maker that only
one government supervisor (Jeff Daniels in a cameo role) knows his true identity. He
infiltrates the ranks of an radical movement headed by the mysterious "Nathir," a terrorist
group hell bent on striking against infidels (basically, everyone but them). Their
mission? To activate sleeper agents - seemingly ordinary Americans but in reality (gasp -
heartless Muslim terrorists) -- and carry out massive, simultaneous suicide bombings on
50 separate buses.

Is Samir driven by his loyalties to his "brothers" in Islam and so thoroughly entrenched in
his covert identity that he will carry out the attacks? Or, will he be loyal to an American
government which is simultaneously pursuing him as a high priority terrorist and is also
complicit in racial profiling and violence towards the Muslim world?

These timely questions could make for an introspective and layered movie that resonates
with the fears and hopes of an international audience. Unfortunately, the filmmakers, or
perhaps their Hollywood producers, jettison these aspects of the movie for a streamlined
"catch the terrorists before they terrorize us" plot that was already beaten to death by
Showtime's Sleeper Cell and every single season of Fox's 24.

Although Traitor aims for a The Departed meets Paradise Lost setup, it fails to work
as both a cat-and-mouse thriller and a reflective identity drama. Cheadle underplays his
role with a somber anguish that emphasizes Samir's turmoil as he falls rapidly into his
"role" as bomb maker and "jihadi" recruiter. But an actor can only work with the solid,
creative foundation a director and a script can provide.

The characters in the movie, particularly Muslim ones, become less human as the film
progresses and morph into Wikipedia sound bites. You know the type too well: characters
who randomly and unrealistically interrupt their speeches with info-tainment, such as
explanations of jihad, translations of Quran verses, botched Islamic prayers and
inopportune vernacular. This is Hollywood's casual way of placating a skeptical,
progressive audience. "See! We did our homework and rented some Muslim advisors! We know all about Quran and Hadith and Sunnah! Right? Great! Ok, let's continue and show Muslims blow up stuff!"

One of Traitor's tragic flaws is Hollywood's century old myopia, placing a shining
minority citizen amidst a sea of his depraved brethren. The "Good Darkie" then battles
for the souls and minds of the "Evil Darkies." Cheadle's Samir is a devout Muslim
whose religious discipline is displayed continuously and even admired by other
characters. He prays five times a day; he fasts; he abstains from alcohol and so forth.
Meanwhile, every other Muslim character seems transplanted from dated 80's action
movies and True Lies.

You have the English speaking, well coiffed terrorist who poses as an elite aristocrat in
Europe, but whose sole purpose is the destruction of the infidels. Then there's the
terrorist henchmen, a classic Hollywood staple, which is basically a United Nations
coalition of mute, scary looking Middle Eastern, Persian and South Asian men. A young,
good-looking French kid eagerly and quickly embraces the jihadi cause after a clichéd
and uninspiring recruitment speech. And another major supporting character, Omar
(played by perennial "go to terrorist actor" Said Taghmaoui), is a European educated,
chess-loving jihadist, who Samir befriends in Yemen.

The beginning of the movie, which focuses on Samir and Omar's friendship while doing
hard time in a Yemeni prison shows glimpses of what could have been before the movie
became buried under an avalanche of clichés. Omar and Samir discuss theology and
spirituality, bouncing off each other's philosophical outlook on life, all while playing
chess. They are excellent foils for one another and the movie has fleeting scenes building
on their friendship, even though it is eventually uprooted by Samir's betrayal. Instead,
Omar becomes yet another substitute terrorist plot device as the movie lapses into
"Muslim Bourne Identity" territory.

Speaking of foils, talented actor Guy Pearce portrays an FBI agent named Clayton, who is hot on Samir's trail. In an attempt to show balance, the filmmakers portray Clayton as a
Texan (one with a really bad Southern accent), and a highly educated son of a Baptist
preacher who studied Arabic and religious studies in college. Aside from giving the
movie its necessary cop-who-hunts-terrorist role, Clayton is also a metaphor for the
tolerant American who is willing to see beyond race and religion. Clayton's nemesis is
his partner Archer, a Dirty Harry, shoot-first ask-questions-later" FBI agent, who lacks
cultural awareness and appreciation for the nuances of Islamic traditions.

This is all well intended, but characters need to be independent, living creations, not just
convenient messages. When Archer says or does something politically incorrect, Clayton
calmly educates him. When Archer lambastes Islam as a religion of terrorism, Clayton
reminds him that the Klu Klux Klan rationalized their abhorrent behavior with the Bible
and that extremist minorities don't define a religion. And then they continue with the
stereotypical plot, hunting down enraged Muslim terrorists. The message of the film is
lost due to its inability to define its good intentions with realistic characters and
meaningful dialogue, substituted instead with tense chase sequences.
This point is highlighted by what is the film's most egregious and unintentional
characterization: the depiction of the sleeper agents. For a movie that tries to have its
tolerance cake and blow it up as well, the filmmakers dangerously depict an America that
is heavily infiltrated with assimilated Muslim American citizens who -- at the drop of a
dime -- are ready to carry out suicide, terrorist missions. From a South Asian government
official to an unassuming, light-skinned college student to an Arab husband and father to
an African-American businessman -- all magically jettison their lives, careers and loved
ones as soon as "Nathir" contacts them for a mission.

For those in America ignorant about Islam and Muslims, it reinforces paranoia and
mistrust, making it seem like your harmless Muslim neighbors, teachers, friends and
lovers are all [cue drum roll and melodramatic music] terrorists! The film's supporters
will likely argue that the sophisticated characterization of Cheadle's Samir counteracts
this evil.

But is Samir the shining Muslim definitive of the moderate majority, or merely an
aberration that exists within the confines of a Hollywood narrative? Traitor aims for the
former but unintentionally delivers the latter. Much like the character Samir, it loses itself
in an unfulfilling dual identity, one that betrays its noble intentions and refuses to fully
commit to its convictions - either as a mindless action thriller or a thought provoking