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Traitor: A Movie that Betrays Itself

08/27/2008 06:46 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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

continues.

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

drama.

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