This serious, intelligent political thriller about jihadists and America's war on terror represents a dramatic change from writer-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff's only other produced feature screenplay, the cartoonish DAY AFTER TOMORROW (2004).
Born in Sudan, Samir Horn (Don Cheadle) was 12 when he saw his devoutly religious father die in a car bombing -- the affiliation of his killers is unclear, and Samir's mother fled to Chicago and raised her son in an inner-city housing project. Thirty years later, Samir is rootless, restless and apparently without political convictions. Fluent in Arabic and accorded the freedom conferred by an American passport, he's arrested in Yemen while negotiating to sell plastic explosives to jihadist Ahmed (Aizoun Abdelkader), a friend from Samir's days as a US military advisor to the Afghanistan's Muhajadeen. Ahmed's Swiss-educated protege, Omar (Said Taghmaoui), distrusted Samir from the start, and the bloody raid on Ahmed's safe house confirms his suspicions, even though Samir winds up in the same hellish prison as Omar and his cohorts. Omar eventually re-evaluates his judgment in light of Samir's consistent decency, quiet strength and unwavering piety, and the two men discover that they have much in common: Both are suspended uneasily between their native countries and the West, frustrated by American and European exploitation of Muslim nations and willing to die for their faith. When Omar's comrades break him out of jail, he brings Samir along and offers him a choice: Samir can return to his aimless life or join the struggle. Meanwhile, Samir's arrest has put him on the radar of FBI anti-terrorist agents Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Max Archer (Neal McDonough), who believe Omar answers to the shadowy Nathir (Raad Rawi), who has masterminded a series of terrorist attacks on Americans abroad and may be planning a major attack on American soil. As the conflicted Samir moves deeper into the world of international terrorism, Archer and Clayton doggedly follow his trail in the hope that he'll lead them to Nathir.
Nachmanoff's film is first and foremost a character study: There's more to Samir than meets the eye, and each new scrap of information casts things in a subtly different light. Nachmanoff's conscientious efforts not to pander to broad stereotypes or use international politics as a backdrop to spectacular car chases and preposterous feats of derring-do make for something more provocative than the average American political thriller, and while his exploration of the deep and divisive roots of Islamic terrorism and the failings of American anti-terrorist policies produce some stretches of didactic expository dialogue, the complicated relationships are always clear and the diverse locations never feel like show-offy cine-tourism. But the film's greatest asset is its performances: Cheadle and Taghmaoudi hold center stage, but Pearce's Clayton, a preacher's son who majored in Arabic studies before joining the FBI, is equally nuanced, as are Alyy Khan's Fareed Mansour, who loves revolution and expensive champagne with equal ardor, and Jeff Daniels' Carter, an old CIA hand whose infrequent appearances belie his importance to the unfolding events. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh