To find even a better-than-average film in the last week of August, the time when Hollywood usually takes out its unscreened garbage, is like stumbling over a fabulous piece of blueberry pie in a roadside diner: You can't make a whole meal out of it, but you're grateful for a happy surprise of even these mid-sized proportions.
“Traitor” is that surprise, a thriller that's frequently implausible but almost always thoughtful. It asks us to rethink the way we see Muslims, to conceive that their loyalty to America may be as intense as their enemies' loyalties to jihad-inspired terrorists.
Don Cheadle plays one of the good guys. We find that out fairly early, when he meets with the FBI agent (Jeff Daniels) who planted him behind enemy lines. But Samir Horn (Cheadle) fits one of the terrorist profiles: His Sudanese father was killed in a bombing, and he grew up in Chicago the son of a Muslim mother. So FBI agents Clayton and Archer (Guy Pearce and Neal McDonough), who aren't aware he's working undercover, have no problem believing he's selling explosives to Yemeni extremists.
The most fervid of those extremists, Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui), enlists Samir for a massive joint attack across the United States. Now Samir must decide how to protect himself, his girlfriend (Archie Punjabi) and the security interests of the United States.
Writer-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff relies on some howlingly improbable events. An example: FBI agents on the ground spot Samir talking to his girl in a Chicago park. They deliver a radio message to the public airline on which Clayton and Archer are flying; the plane lands at O'Hare; the two agents pick up a vehicle and manage the 45-minute drive to Chicago, all while Samir is motoring to another neighborhood in the vicinity.
Yet Nachmanoff, who shares the original story credit with Steve Martin – yes, that Steve Martin – finally pulls off something more daring and perhaps more important than a tightly constructed plot: He gets us to look with fresh eyes at the people we lump together as terrorists.
Some are urbane, some coarse. Some are wild-eyed, some calm. Some are loners; some have loved ones they're willing to abandon in the cause of perceived righteousness. Some have doubts; some have utter certainty they're doing the right thing. The jihadist Omar is a bit more complex than one usually finds in films, and Taghmaoui and Cheadle share acting honors equally.
Samir is an especially unusual character for a fictional narrative: a devout Muslim who must reconcile his hatred of life-taking with his FBI boss' attitude that some – perhaps many – innocent people must die so the terrorist enemy can be vanquished. When a bombing meant to hurt no one goes awry, he has to face the first of many crises of faith. This is not an optimistic film, by the way: It suggests the war between radical Islam and western governments has no obvious solution or foreseeable end.
I know little about Nachmanoff, save that he's co-credited with the script for “The Day After Tomorrow.” (I won't hold that against him now.) I'm guessing from his name that he's Jewish – and that producers David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman, Kay Liberman and Jeffrey Silver may be as well.
A movie made by Jews that asks us to re-examine our preconceptions about diversity and devotion in the Islamic world? Maybe there's hope for ultimate unity, after all.