The War Within
dir. Castelo
Opens Fri Oct 21
Cinema 21

The first movie since 9/11 to deal explicitly with the subject of Islamic terrorism on American soil, The War Within is a potent thriller, an imperfect analysis of the motivations behind terrorist activity, and an intriguing, but overwritten family drama. It alternates curiously between smart ideas marred by simplistic execution and boilerplate plot twists enlivened by perfect pacing. There isn't a scene in The War Within that couldn't be improved in some way, but it's a fascinating cultural document and one that shouldn't be missed.

Hassan (played by Ayad Akhtar, also a co-writer) is a Pakistani engineering student at a Paris university when he's snatched off the street by an anonymous intelligence force. He's turned over to the authorities in Pakistan, where he's interrogated and tortured—and where, conveniently, he hooks up with a member of a terrorist group planning an attack on New York City's public transportation system. The chain of causality isn't clear, but the obvious inference—that Hassan turned to terrorism because he was abused—is intensified by crosscutting between the two scenes. Co-writer Tom Glynn tells me that the screenplay purposefully leaves the question open: "I think you don't give people the connections or the answers that they need. Even as much as the torture is suggested as the thing that specifically turns him to terrorism—maybe he was already involved before he got there."

In any case, the film doesn't hit its stride until Hassan smuggles himself to New Jersey, taking refuge in the home of Sayeed (the excellent Firdous Bamji), a hospitable childhood friend who has no idea about Hassan's activities. Somewhere between tutoring the family's son about his Islamic heritage (when Hassan tells the kid to follow the Qur'an, the boy chirps annoyingly, "But my dad always told me to listen to my heart!") and taking interest in Sayeed's attractive sister (Nandana Sen, who is distractingly bad), Hassan thinks twice about what he's doing. And then you're in for one hell of a thrilling ride.