Anchor Bay // 2008 // 114 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // January 7th, 2009
The truth is complicated.
The truth may be complicated, but one thing is crystal clear: Traitor is a smart dramatic thriller from top to bottom, with fantastic performances from its lead actors.
Samir Horn (Don Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda) is a complex man. A Sudanese-American, ex-Special Forces soldier, and devout Muslim, he finds himself in constant struggles with his faith and his politics, especially when he gets arrested in Yemen trying to sell high explosives to shady characters. Sent to prison for arms dealing, he soon befriends Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui, The Good Thief), who finds Samir's faith inspiring. When Omar's people orchestrate an armed prison break, he takes Samir along to introduce him to his Islamic fanatical family.
Samir is doggedly pursued by FBI agent Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce, Memento) who fits him as the prime suspect in a string of bombings and terrorist attacks across the globe. As Samir gets deeper and deeper into a complex plot to bomb American targets in a coordinated attack, the loyalties of Samir come into some dispute after conflicting evidence emerges. Is Samir what he appears to be -- a disillusioned soldier turned terrorist? Or is he something else entirely?
Largely ignored and underappreciated by the masses, Traitor is a tense, deliberate, and methodical political thriller, balancing elements of geopolitical instability, race, religion, terrorism, and faith into a web of half-truths, deceptions, and lies. The film left moviegoers and reviewers unimpressed, perhaps partly due to people finding it challenging to go along on an adventure where the heroic figure is a Muslim terrorist. Whether or not he ends up being one is the crux of the entire film. These are complex times we live in, but all the more reason for a film like Traitor to come along.
Traitor brings up more ethical dilemmas than it attempts to answer, and while many may find this a failing point in a film, this is the kind of introspective pomp that asses like myself revel in, rolling about in the endless loops, hopeless paradoxes, and tangled webs like a pig in dirt. The distinction between good and evil is moot in Traitor, because (remember) the truth is complicated. Most of the characters presented to us are complex challenges -- sympathetic and traitorous, even the dyed-in-the-wool bad guys. In this way, the film challenges many preconceived notions about how we view those around us, especially those of us with the scary faith of being Muslim, because hey -- they could be a terrorist, don't you know. What I love about Traitor is how the film simultaneously props up this stereotype in its favor, adding an element of suspicion and doubt into how we perceive Samir, while also tearing it down vehemently with a chainsaw, shaming audiences for even considering such possibilities. Unfortunately for Samir, men of his faith are manipulated and used by other men to perform acts of great violence; be those acts terrorism or enforcement, we get shameful examples of both kinds in Traitor.
For all its emotional complexities and introspective twists, Traitor is not a challenging film to unlock in terms of plot. The narrative borrows heavily from other established films in the espionage/double agent genre, and the dialogue often feels clipped and stunted, like a David Mamet script minus the constant cursing. Many smoke and mirrors are propped up to obscure Samir's true intentions -- is he a terrorist, or is he a good guy? -- but at no point are audiences really fooled for a minute in this regard. Where the film excels is in how Cheadle handles the role, showing the torturous struggle in his eyes during every sequence as he balances his loyalties.
Traitor isn't really about whether or not Samir Horn is a traitor to America or a traitor to his faith; it is an examination of how the lines that separate the righteous from the villainous is drawn with invisible ink. There has yet to be a conflict in the history of the world where both sides were not absolutely convinced of their own virtue, and we feel this in every moment of Samir's life. He is a man torn between both worlds, and while his loyalties are never really in doubt, he fully realizes the futility of his own actions and the inherent hypocrisy of his existence. It's a tough job, being a traitor/double agent/triple agent/whatever.
As Samir dances between his faith, the FBI and his terrorist friends, it is during the segments where he looks at himself in the mirror that Traitor breaks straight out of its genre shell like an explosive round and rockets toward greatness. Cheadle is such a good actor that without him in this film, there is no question that it would suck, or at best, be severely compromised. His performance as Samir is enigmatic, confusing, difficult to categorize in words, so much so that someone has been able to take a relatively straightforward espionage movie and make an incredible film around him. Consider: his father is Sudanese, but he's an American citizen. He's a devout Muslim, but he joined the U.S. Special Forces. His father was killed by a bomb, but he finds himself making bombs himself. He is a terrorist and a hero at the same time, holding both contradictory statuses simultaneously, like a Schrödinger's Cat stuck in a John le Carré novel. Even as the film hurtles towards its inevitable and predictable conclusion, we still question his actions, his responses, his facial expressions until the very end, because we can never quite be sure of where his loyalties lie. When Samir looks in the mirror, it's clear that at times, he has no idea either.
Oh yeah, Guy Pearce is in it too. This might sound like a flippant toss out of useless information, but it's true: this is Don Cheadle's show, so much so that we barely notice anyone else. What little we get about Agent Clayton is interesting -- son of a Baptist minister who finds himself with a PhD in Arabic Studies -- and would make for interesting introspection, but the plot simply allows no opportunity for it. His role in the film is to be the straight arrow flying at Samir, regardless of his own internal pathos. It would have been nice to get to know him a bit better. A minor point to be sure, but that's what we're here for.
In short: Traitor is a top-notch thriller, full of intrigue, espionage, double and triple-agents, and a surprisingly realistic performance by Cheadle as sympathetic terrorist/hero, depending on your particular perspective. As Samir muddles through his ethical mess of shifting loyalties, the narrative keeps you hanging for unexpected reasons -- you know in your gut how the narrative will end, but you honestly have no idea about Samir. Traitor forces audiences to question their own preconceived notions and prejudices about how we perceive our collective Western war on terror, but does so in an overt fashion, never pushing an agenda. Topical subtlety is a heck of a skill in an espionage film. Traitor is simply suburb.
Despite a slightly modified aspect ratio (more on this later) Traitor looks fantastic on DVD; deep rich black levels, nicely saturated colors, sharp contrast and minimal print damage or grain detectable. It pops, for lack of a better word. Shot globally across Chicago, London, Morocco, London, Marseille, and Toronto, the film is visually striking despite a calm and methodical hand on the camerawork. It has that lovely international espionage feel. In terms of audio, a lively 5.1 surround track is the superior option; bass response is aggressive and meaty, and rear channels are pleasantly active, whipping into action to capture unexpected environmental details. For reasons unknown to us, a big honking DTS logo is plastered on the packaging, but there is no DTS track on this DVD. Buyer beware.
In terms of supplements, a feature-length commentary track with writer/director Jeffrey Nachmanoff and actor Don Cheadle offers a detailed and introspective examination into the inner workings of the film, while two featurettes ("Action!" and "International Espionage") fill in the remainder of the behind-the-scenes information. The featurettes are short, totaling about 10 minutes combined, but they're better than nothing.
Anchor Bay continues a befuddling tradition of butchering DVD releases by mangling the hell out of native aspect ratios, presumably to satisfy the clauses of an ancient blood-penned contract with the dark lord Satan himself. Traitor has a native theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1, but the DVD infuriatingly opts presents the film in a "modified for your screen" 1.78:1 aspect ratio.
Seriously, why? There's just no excuse for this kind of thing anymore. Anchor Bay made a name for itself back in the early days of DVD, churning out full-frame presentations of every film imaginable, but now that more and more people have widescreen televisions, I suppose 16:9 is the new "full frame" for us non-High Def plebes. Ugh.
For all you high-definition folks, it should be noted that the Blu-Ray version of Traitor offers the proper aspect ratio in 2:35:1. This is awfully infuriating, because it suggests that Anchor Bay deliberately opted to shaft the standard definition folk; why, I have no idea. If you're a stickler for the full authenticity of a theatrical vision, the Blu-Ray may be the way to go.
[Chief Justice Note: In addressing this issue with our Anchor Bay rep, it was explained that director Jeffrey Nachmanoff decided to go with the modified framing to present the best possible resolution for viewers with 4:3 televisions (not everyone owns a widescreen), as well as leave space on the disc for bonus materials. So, there you go. Don't shoot the messenger...or the studio.]
Traitor is a textbook example of that lovely, underappreciated rare film that is exponentially superior than its reviews would indicate. If you can forgive a cropped DVD presentation (an admittedly good-looking one, as aspect butchery goes), this thriller is worth the price of admission. Cheadle is simply mesmerizing as a terrorist caught between two worlds, driving the politically charged drama with calm efficiency. It's hard to balance introspection and political espionage into a single film without being preachy, but Traitor makes it all seem effortless.
Not guilty. If you missed this one during its limited theatrical run, then I guess we all know who the traitor really is...
Review content copyright © 2009 Adam Arseneau; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 114 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Audio Commentary
* Theatrical Trailer
* Official Site