Traitor In Trange Land

The Boy opted for the new Don Cheadle movie over the documentary about the guy who tightrope walked across the World Trade Center, and since he had been the King of All Brothers with a rather whiny Flower, I let him hold the popcorn for a while.

Which isn’t really relevant to anything. Except I was proud of him. The Flower’s been going through a difficult time and she tends to take it out on him, while at the same time missing him when he shutters himself in his room.

So we went to see this movie–based on a story by wild ‘n’ crazy guy, Steve Martin!–and, The Boy didn’t really get it. That’s unusual except there are some subtitles in the movie. I’ve noticed that if the movie is entirely in a foreign language, he does fine, but if they come and go, he can get lost. In this case, while most of the dialog is in English, part of it is in arabic, and the arabic’s not all subtitled.

The other thing I think is a factor is that for more than half the movie, you’re in the terrorist’s lair, and that’s hard to relate to, I think. I liken it to the mad scientist in a Bond movie who’s going to destroy the world, except writ small. The thing is, the Bond movie doesn’t have to make sense. You have to wonder about the logic that says, “If we just blow up enough random, non-military stuff, we win.”

For a moment, I got a kind of Paradise Now vibe off it. Paradise Now is a kind of brilliant movie, told entirely from the Palestinian POV. If you’ve drunk the kool-aid, anyway. An objective POV might chafe a bit at the Palestinians blaming the entirety of their plight on Israelis. I’m sure they do that, but it turns them all into victims whose only recourse seems to be further victimization.

So, in this movie, we have Don Cheadle, Islamic explosives expert, who gets deeper and deeper into the world of jihad until he’s sent on a mission to equip 50 American moles with 50 bombs to detonate on bus trips, all on the same day.

All is not as it seems, of course, and one of the big problems is that Don Cheadle is almost a latter day Henry Fonda. Even when he’s not playing an American, he radiates a kind of All-American good-heartedness. He’s the guy who turns the hotel into a refugee camp, who takes his crazy ex-roommate under his wing, who is wise in the ways of racism. Even in Boogie Nights, he seemed like an incredibly decent guy in a sleazy business.

Seeing him as a terrorist is challenging, and maybe it ultimately works because terrorists see themselves as good people. The movie does raise a whole lot of questions about what limits it’s okay to go to get a bad man.

One of the other big problems, however, is that the actions taken to get the bad man (not Cheadle but his ultimate boss) don’t entirely make sense. They do set up a bravura climax, one that’s really quite satisfying.

Which leads us to the biggest problem: The movie is more tense than suspenseful, which makes it feel a little slow. (I remember Joel Siegel saying once that the difference between tension and suspense is that two hours of suspense is fun, while two hours of tension gives you a headache.)

I’m calling out the faults, but it’s only the movie’s slowness that hurts it seriously, and it’s still quite watchable. Cheadle is fine, as always, and the supporting cast includes Jeff Daniels, Guy Pearce and Neal McDonough. Cheadle’s real co-star is Saïd Taghmaoui, who respects his love of Islam and takes him further into the terrorist network.

Ultimately, the movie works in the sense that it challenges you to think about, as I said, what’s okay in the war on terror, and it does so without being a navel-gazing exercise in America-bashing. So, that’s a plus.

It needed a little crisper direction, however. But the director’s former “big script” was the abysmally perplexing The Day After Tomorrow, so this is a step in the right direction.

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