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Traitor /

Rated: PG-13

Starring: Don Cheadle, Jeff Daniels, Guy Pearce, Neil McDonaugh, Raad Rawi

Directed by: Jeffrey Nachmanoff

Produced by: David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman, Don Cheadle, Jeffrey Silver
Written by: Jeffrey Nachmanoff (screenplay & story), Steve Martin (story)
Distributor: Overture Films

     Pacing is a key component of any movie, but with one like Traitor it’s especially essential. This is because Traitor is a thriller in the most basic sense of the word: its effectiveness relies entirely on the slow unveiling of its tightly-wound plot. In order to be successful, the picture must both keep the viewer guessing and not allow them to be savvy enough to predict what will happen in the end.

     Traitor may end up achieving a substantial level of unpredictability, but it fails to meet the additional aforementioned requirement of a thriller. In the film’s first act, the viewer quickly realizes that it won’t become clear for awhile just where writer/director Jeffrey Nachmanoff is taking them and, as a result, they are not fully intrigued by the plot’s progression. All said viewer knows is that Samir Horn (Don Cheadle), a Sudanese immigrant to the U.S. who later became a Special Operations officer in the military, is now working with shady terrorists in Yemen. In an opening scene, he provides a group of these terrorists a supply of detonators for suicide bombers, only be caught by FBI agents (Guy Pearce and Neil McDonaugh) and committed to a Yemeni prison. There, he becomes acquainted with Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui), a man taken into custody alongside him who is involved in a plot to stage an attack in the United States.

     From the get-go, it’s pretty clear that Samir is not a transformed terrorist himself, but rather an individual working so covertly for the U.S. Government that only a lone agent—in this case Carter (Jeff Daniels)—knows of his assignment. His history doesn’t match up with that of a man of jihadist persuasions; his father died in a car-bombing that was terrorism-related and he is a devout, compassionate Muslim, not one inspired by radical ideals. As a result, no intrigue is conjured up watching Pearce and McDonaugh’s agents track Samir’s activity because they believe him to be related to the terrorist plot. He will obviously be found not guilty of any crimes if he is arrested. Alas, the only thing the audience has left to ponder is whether Samir will be able to stop the terrorist plot that Omar, leader Nathir (Raad Rawi), and fellow jihadists are planning to conduct. While this proves somewhat engaging in sporadic spurts, it fails to culminate into a work of great significance because it only has two possible (uninspired) conclusions: 1) a feel-good finale in which Samir stops the plot or 2) an over-preachy statement-making ending in which the terrorists succeed.

     While Traitor is busy plodding along as a thriller, filmmaker Nachmanoff would like to convince his viewers that it is a movie of substance, perhaps not even one that should be considered a mere “thriller” at all. (I suspect, however, that Nachmanoff wished to make up for the movie’s deficiencies in the thrills-department when writing it and therefore saw a need to interject with additional material.) In order to bulk things up, the movie examines Samir’s Muslim faith from an emotional (as opposed to cultural) perspective. For the most part, this functions as yet another politically-correct, obvious reinforcement of the always widely-held view that Islam largely exists for the better. It does prove fascinating in its exploration of one story-thread, however: Samir’s religion-based interaction with the terrorists, who hypocritically pride themselves on being the most devout of Muslims. There is an unexpectedly intense scene in which a terrorist higher-up explains to Samir the moral-righteousness of drinking alcohol (an act forbidden by the Koran) in public because it allows jihadists to “blend in” and not open themselves up as targets for investigation.

     While Traitor is mostly spotty in its ability to immerse and engage viewers on the whole, one part of the equation is consistently excellent: the acting. In the lead role, Don Cheadle is compelling because he captures all of the intrigue that Nachmanoff fails to achieve in the grander scheme. Keeping his emotions and associations close to the belt, Samir proves fascinating on a human level, much thanks to Cheadle’s nuanced performance. Jeff Daniels also turns in solid work, albeit only seen in short-segments. Not to mention, the entire Arab cast for the film is believable and riveting, as well. The only weak link is Pearce, whose drowsy FBI agent always takes the viewer out of the moment. Come to think of it, Pearce’s mediocre work is very similar to Nachmanoff’s writing and direction: it’s constantly interruptive of the movie’s best elements because it favors a procedural approach, and most unfortunately so because said approach is lacking on a fundamental level.

     Traitor may have its moments and its good qualities, but it doesn’t work as a thriller because it lacks suspense and it doesn’t work as a drama because its effective material isn’t unified enough. What’s left is a film that drifts and wanders, full of potential but equally as devoid of a polished finish.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 8.27.2008

Screened on: 8.25.2008 at the Chaplin Screening Room at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood, CA.


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