Judge Jennifer Malkowski realizes that it's A) difficult and B) vaguely inappropriate to write a cute, witty blurb for a serious drama about terrorists. Let's just leave it at that, shall we?
"I don't expect you to understand what I am about to do."
Poised to be one of the most controversial films of the year, this intimate portrait of a suicide bomber mainly flew under the radar, perhaps because it was produced with so much (too much?) agonized ethical consideration and sensitivity.
Facts of the Case
In the opening scene of The War Within, a young Muslim man named Hassan is dragged off the street by US intelligence operatives, thrown into an unmarked van, and transported to a faraway, decrepit prison. There he is tortured for information he does not appear to have and then shown pictures of his murdered brother, who was apparently involved in a terrorist plot.
Three years later, Hassan still bears the scars of his abuse, both physically and mentally. He comes to America planning to sacrifice his life in a large-scale terrorist attack on a post-9/11 New York City. Staying with old friends from Pakistan who are now living the American dream, Hassan must decide whether to go through with his plot.
While he is staying with his friend, Sayeed, Hassan becomes very close with the man's young son, Ali. Much of The War Within is about the battle for Ali's allegience, about the path of the next generation of Muslim men. In the most important exchange of the film, Hassan gives Ali a copy of The Koran just before he leaves to carry out his attack. He tells Ali, "You are a Muslim. Never forget that. It means you have a duty to stand up against what is wrong, to stand up for what is right." Ali responds, "My dad told me that I should always listen to my heart, that my heart will always tell me what's right." Hassan presses the book into his hand and insists, "This is what is written in your heart." Like this exchange, The War Within is characterized by the struggle of the Muslims to "do the right thing" in light of the terrible atrocities and violence that have marred their recent history. To Hassan, an act of terrorism is the "the right thing" proscribed by Allah. But the tone of the film quietly supports the more compassionate perspective shared by Ali and his father, the idea that initiating a mass killing could never feel right in one's heart.
But the answer is not that simple. Terrorism is deeply wrong in this film, but so are the policies of the American government and, to some extent, the ignorance of the American people. This is not the kind of movie in which the terrorist will be stopped by an interaction with a kindly old white woman, or a look from an adorable American child. In fact, almost all the scenes in the film that develop the few white-American characters were excluded from the final cut (though you can see them in the deleted scenes on this disc). The white characters—and white American civilians in general, by extension—are not evil or heartless, but they are at best irrelevant to these specific issues, and at worst unforgivably ignorant (as Hassan writes, "ignorance is not innocence"). A counterpart to the above dialogue is another scene between Hassan and Ali in which the older man asks the boy to imagine a scenario: his white neighbors come over one day and tell his family to vacate the house, that it now belongs to them. Ali's family must sleep in the backyard, but soon the neighbors kick them out of that space, too—there is oil under the ground and the neighbors want it. "What would you do?" Hassan asks. Ali feels sure that this could never happen, that "somebody would stop them." The implicit question is, who will stop American imperialism? And dealing with that one is more troubling than pondering the less murky ethics of terrorism.
Although there are many supporting characters to influence and interact with Hassan, the success of the film hangs on the depiction of Hassan himself, of the terrorist whose point of view we are asked to inhabit. At first, I was somewhat disappointed with his character. I thought the film would be much more chilling if only he were a little more likeable. Every time he would exhibit his extreme beliefs—refusing to even discuss political issues, rejecting a sweet romance because the woman in question is not a virgin—I would pull back from his character. I kept imagining the creepy charm of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs or the undeniable sympathy I felt for Aileen Wuornos, the rape-survivor turned murderer in Monster. I couldn't like or identify with Hassan in this way, and I thought that was a flaw in the writing. But unlike Hannibal, Hassan is not propelled by psychosis, selfishness, and sadism. And unlike Wuornos, he is not acting out of blind, unfocused rage and trauma that must find an outlet. His violent quest is about a kind of twisted heroism and a deep belief that killing a huge number of random citizens will somehow make the world a better, more just place. And though we may understand the problems he faces, the nature of his solution is such that most of us cannot really like him on any level. Furthermore, his belief in terrorism is part of a larger system of extreme fundamentalism—so a script that had him passionlessly debating these political issues or overlooking his suitor's past sexual experiences would not really ring true. Nevertheless, I would argue that the script feels too heavily calculated. Each line of dialogue carries the perceptible weight of agonized writing sessions during which Castelo and Akhtar struggled to handle these explosive issues responsibly. As a result, there is a certain raw spontaneity missing here that might have really driven these characters and conflicts home.
It is only in some minor technical aspects that this film reveals its small-budget limitations. The biggest problem is with the clarity of the dialogue. The mix of heavy accents, low-budget sound recording on-location, and the lack of English subtitles prevented me from understanding some of the key lines in the film. In particular, the dialogue in the first scene in Grand Central Station is extremely difficult to follow. I was also somewhat disappointed in the picture quality, and I suspect that some of the failings originate in the production phase rather than the DVD transfer process. The torture flashbacks all have a kind of washed out, fuzzy, cheap-video look that seems to be going for a grainy, low-light image. The problem is that although a lot of grain on film stock can convey a kind of beautiful, artful seediness and hardness in a scene, their non-film version of that effect just looks cheap. The transfer causes some problems, too, including deep blacks that don't hold up well and some significant pixel break-up, especially noticeable in the final scene.
The extras on this disc are few, but they are just the right ones. The deleted scenes are very illuminating about how Castelo and Akhtar wanted to focus their story. And the commentary provides a nice mix of notes about their research, the script, the production, the performances, and the film's reception. It is interesting to hear about how they approached a story that is told from a terrorist's point of view. Their voices are very difficult to tell apart on the commentary track, but one of them comments, "These are real things that happened, full of real human dynamics and real human relationships, as well," to which the other responds, "But I think it's important to say that we struggled with that moment to moment. This exchange represents the general tone of the commentary and also, it seems, of the whole production of The War Within. One really gets a sense that there is also a "war within" these writers who must walk the fine line between creating sympathy and creating empathy, between making a terrorist human and making him likeable.
The War Within achieves a delicate balance of political sensitivity and a pull-no-punches attitude in a story that, though not perfect, cannot help but make you think.
Since The War Within is all about the impossibility of justice in our current political climate, it is only fitting for me to find this well-done film guilty as charged.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Home Entertainment
• Commentary with writer/director Joseph Castelo and writer/actor Ayad Akhtar
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