Kevin's Review: Traitor - Showing the World's Gripping Shades of Grey
by Kevin Powers
August 27, 2008
Don Cheadle's character, Samir Horn, is a man conflicted. He's Middle-Eastern yet also a US citizen; he's a concerted Muslim but also a pragmatist; he helps to further terrorist goals but works for the CIA. So when Samir turns to his girlfriend at one point in Jeffrey Nachmanoff's directorial debut, Traitor, and says "the truth is complicated," he's definitely not kidding. This complexity, along with a rounded cast, a globe-trotting story and a peppering of smart action makes Traitor an entertaining espionage thriller that is not only uniquely smart, but timely. But while the film doesn't reach Bourne or Syriana heights, it's certainly a thought-provoking and cautionary tale about the many shades of grey that exist in the world.
Samir is a former US Special Operations officer that is loosely under the employ of the CIA by way of of the morally questionable Carter (Jeff Daniels). Samir is working in Yemen when he's thrown in jail following a raid of a terrorist group's compound. This is the first of only a few instances where the film's two plotlines intersect - FBI agent Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) along with his partner Max Archer (Neal McDonough) show up to question Samir. Uncooperative, Samir keeps quiet, and stays in the Yemeni jail until he escapes with the help of the terrorist cell with which he worked, led by Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui of Vantage Point). The group resumes their nefarious plans in France when Clayton catches Samir's scent again. I don't want to give too much away, but it's safe to say that the veritable cat-and-mouse game continues throughout the film, crossing more continents with Clayton just a hair's-breadth behind.
If you can believe it, the idea for Traitor actually came from Steve Martin back in 2003, while he was doing Bringing Down the House (of all unrelated things). Nachmanoff, who also wrote the script for the apocalyptic adventure The Day After Tomorrow furthered the concept, eventually enlisting the help of Cheadle when the Academy Award-winning actor came on board as both lead and producer.
One of the most engrossing aspects of Traitor is that throughout much of the film, you never truly know where Samir's loyalties lie. Cheadle effectively rides the fence to an impressive degree, having his character actually commit terrorist acts, yet doing so with remorse following short behind. That inner conflict, however, doesn't stop him from furthering the next attack. At the same time, Samir checks in with his pseudo-CIA-handler, manifesting an air of underlying anti-terrorist intentions. Samir's character and his true loyalties will keep you guessing long after the film is over - a real credit to Cheadle's range as an actor.
Writer and director, Nachmanoff, achieves a thrilling level of suspense and complexity in Traitor, as well. While Samir wages his battles both internally and externally, Nachmanoff gives us a composite look at U.S law enforcement by way of Clayton and Archer -- the latter being your typical beat-it-out-him hard-ass, with Clayton as a progressive and thinking lawman. Juxtaposed to these two is crafty CIA agent Carter, who portrays yet another face to the organizations protecting our country. On other side of the fence is the tepid solider, Omar, and the unabashed decision-maker, Fareed (Aly Khan of A Mighty Heart). Truly, Nachmanoff's Traitor contains more angles than a De Beers diamond. Well, a Zales diamond is probably more accurate. The film's form and cut is skilled, but the overall quality isn't totally flawless, especially in its finish. Regardless, Traitor is a thought-provoking film with a great cast that still shines.