Traitor shows flashes of being something greater than just an average spy thriller, but doesn't quite get there. Co-stars Guy Pearce and Don Cheadle bring dynamic and believable conviction to this chase film's cat and mouse. The film attempts—and mostly succeeds—to discuss big topics about faith, war and worldview. And the filmmakers' bold decision to center a movie on a devout black Muslim creates one of modern Hollywood's most serious, nuanced, and refreshing portrayals of committed, daily faith.
However, most of this is undone by forced plot twists, head-scratching jumps in logic and a plan by the hero that would sound great in a seventh grade short story but could never work out in real life.
Whereas the film may have had hopes to be in the neighborhood of The Fugitive, The Bourne Identity or Spy Games, writing gaffes make it yet another forgettable thriller that's not nearly as fast-moving, action-intensive, or hard-hitting as the ad campaign has portrayed it. It's actually a talk-intensive drama that builds its mystery by presenting a cloudy narrative: Who is Samir Horn (Cheadle)?
We first see a young Samir in 1978 as he watches his father, a respected Islam religious figure, killed by a car bombing. Flashing to the present, Samir seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time as Yemen forces, led by FBI agent Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce), take down a terrorist cell linked to several suicide bombings. In a forced and somewhat confusing plot development, Samir's deep and devout faith attracts the attention of fundamentalist terrorist Omar (Saï d Taghmaoui). Before Samir knows it, they're out of prison and Omar reveals a plan for a devastating attack on U.S. soil. All the while, Clayton is right on the tail of both of them.
For at least the first half, the film's intrigue and suspense is built on withholding from the viewer all the information of what's really going with Samir. He is not who he appears to be. Because of that, little more should be said plot-wise. But suffice it to say, when Traitor does starts explaining, it easily falls into predictability, story shortcuts, cheap "gotcha" twists, and typical spy movie conventions—like conference rooms full of white guys in suits arguing about who didn't tell who about what. It's also one of those movies where a government agency somehow permits only one man to be privy to very important intel. Do real governments work this way? Perhaps. But that's not why it's here. No, only one man knows the truth in Traitor because it makes screenwriting easier; it explains away how large groups of characters don't know who's the good guy and who's the bad guy.
These story flaws distract from what could have been a great study of a very interesting, complex character.
While Samir could seem like a typical "Hollywood Muslim bad guy," that's not him at all. There's far more to him than meets the eye. What is undeniably true about this character is the depth of his faith. This is a bold and respectful depiction of a devoutly religious man. When in his power, he stays true (except for a foolish and completely out-of-character climax) to his beliefs and morals. He prays throughout the movie. And he continuously reminds others that, "Life and death is for God to decide" and "I answer to God. We all do."
Seeing Samir's faith portrayed so powerfully, as a Christian I wish more contemporary films would depict Christ-followers in the same way—devout, serious, balanced, strong, principled. Still, it's refreshing for a film dealing with religious fundamentalism and terrorism to consciously show various sides of the religious equation. It's not common to find movies that offer such a balance; it's easier to find films where the wacky, extreme believer is left to represent the entire faith—any faith. Whereas extremist, violent Muslims may make up a tiny fraction of the religions' adherents, that's typically all we see of Islam in movies. It's nice to see the exception shown as the exception—and not the rule. This is a Hollywood predicament that Christians can well understand. And Traitor straightforwardly takes on the issue of one-note depictions of religions.
"Every religion has more than one face," says Pearce's apparently Christian FBI agent, Clayton. "When I grew up, people would burn crosses in yards and call it Christianity. Me, my daddy and others from our church would go put them out."
Not only does the film balance its portrayal of differing factions within Islam, but it also includes a Christian viewpoint. Sort of. While Clayton is clearly a believer, the film spends far less time on his beliefs. Besides, his faith doesn't seem to be at the very core of his life as does Samir's. The son and grandson of Baptist ministers, Clayton was a religion major before turning to law. He confesses belief in God, but doesn't mention Christ. He is strong, moral and respectful of others' beliefs, but isn't seen praying or practicing faith as Samir does. Honestly, we know very little about his faith. Still, there are enough hints that screenwriters Jeffrey Nachmanoff and Steve Martin (yes, the comedian) could have created a great comparative character study had they focused more on these two men than on the ho-hum spy plot.
Using these characters, though, the film does engage in somewhat heavy-handed but nonetheless interesting conversations about the exploitation of martyrs, what faith really means, and how religions can be hijacked and twisted. Traitor also hammers home the point that both sides in any war can sound exactly the same. Both claim that in a time of war, rules don't matter and that desperate action is warranted. Both do what it takes to win. But in the middle is Samir, who is trying to stop the religious violence but clearly uncomfortable with the toll it may take on him and his soul.
Sadly, these aren't the things I thought about while leaving the theater. Instead, I was consumed with plot questions that just don't add up. Why does the terrorist cell suddenly and shockingly change their decision regarding Samir? Why doesn't Samir use his vantage point to stop a certain event—instead of merely making it less damaging? And why does Samir make a strangely desperate action at the end that is completely against everything we know about him?
With fewer questions about the reality of the story, I may have better bought into Traitor's questions about a far greater reality.Discussion starters
- With all that you know of Samir and his faith, what do you make of the scene on the ship? Why does he make the decision he does?
- What is going on in the final scene between Samir and Clayton? What is Samir feeling and wrestling with? How can you as a Christ follower understand his internal struggle?
- In the course of trying to do what they believe is right, several characters make exceptions to their faith. Is it ever OK to ignore principles of one's faith to achieve a greater goal? Is it OK to break the laws to uphold them? Read 3 John 1:11,1 Peter 3:17, Hebrews 5:14 and 1 Thessalonians 5:22.
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Traitor is rated PG-13 for intense violent sequences, thematic material and brief language. The violence is typical for a thriller, including shooting and hand-to-hand combat. There's a scene of a boy being thrown off a bridge over a road (the impact is not seen but heard.) Several popular curse words are used, including taking the Lord's name in vain.
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