Cheadle proves his acting prowess -- 3 stars

Directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff. August 2008, USA. PG-13: 114 min.

(Originally published in buzz magazine on 8/31/2008)

Who is Samir Horn? On one hand, he is a fervent Muslim who sees Allah as his only true master and moral living as the ultimate goal. On the other, he is a former U.S. Special Operations officer and an explosives expert. He sees his own face on the America’s Most Wanted List after being linked by FBI detectives Roy Clayton and Max Archer to a terrorist organization’s bombing in Nice, France. But is he a traitor? And if so, did he sell out America or Islam?

Born in Sudan to a noted Islam scholar who, one day, suddenly dies in a car bombing incident, Samir learns the value of life and the cost of death as a young child. His mother attests to this when Clayton (Guy Pearce, Memento), son of a Baptist minister with a Ph.D. in Arabic Studies, questions her about Samir’s motive to turn criminal. And when Clayton pays a similar visit to Samir’s love interest, she takes him for a racist who assumes all Muslims are mujahideen, and we understand Samir is not the terrorizing type. Yet Archer remains suspicious that Samir had a change of heart. Don Cheadle’s portrayal of the troubled and mysterious Samir always keeps us guessing. Even as Samir fraternizes with Omar (Said Taghmaoui), a terrorist sect leader who helps them escape from a prison in Yemen, he questions Omar’s ethics. Why worry so much about the infidelity of others if even they break Halal by eating pork and drinking alcohol? Cheadle never really lightens up; his unease is always visible and provides another layer to the movie’s already complicated texture.

The cinematography adds a level of rawness and authenticity to Jeffrey Nachmanoff’s first writing-directing gig since 1993. The camera rarely stays put, heightening tension with shots that shake along with soldiers’ footsteps and glide through terrorist hideouts with suspenseful long takes.

Also interesting is Steve Martin’s involvement in Traitor. As in, Steve Martin from The Jerk (1979), Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987), and Father of the Bride (1991). He co-wrote the story with Nachmanoff and pitched in with a gaggle of other co-producers. But there’s nothing comical about the movie. If you plan on catching Traitor — and you should — come ready to think, because it’s an eye-opening film that offers a glimpse into the other perspective of the War on Terror.