The War Within

Originally published in Northwest Asian Weekly in a slightly different form.

Ayad Akhtar wages The War Within (Magnolia Pictures)

Destined to be one of the more controversial cinematic sleights-of-hand in ‘05, The War Within dares to put a human face on what the West might consider the most inhuman and irrational of criminals: the suicide bomber.

The picture begins with a brief street scene in Paris. Hassan, a young Pakistani engineer, walks along the boulevard, talking on his cell phone to a friend about what movie they should take in that evening. Out of nowhere, he’s brutally assaulted, then abducted. We next see an airplane hurtling through the sky, and an off-screen voice tells us, “Package is en route,” a dehumanizing reference to the man held in cargo. Believed to be a terrorist, Hassan has fallen prey to extraordinary rendition, the government practice of arresting suspects without due process and transporting them to other countries to be tortured and interrogated.

“I didn’t do anything,” Hassan protests to the other prisoner in his cell. “Makes no difference,” Khalid replies. Khalid, it turns out, belongs to an organization called the Brotherhood, one that’s very much like Al-Qaeda. The thoroughly secular Hassan initially resists Khalid’s efforts to indoctrinate him in the teachings of the Koran. But after three years as a detainee, Hassan emerges as a different man, one with deep faith in Islam and with an equally serious interest in blowing up Grand Central Station in New York City.

The filmmakers walk a real tightrope. There are no mentions anywhere in The War Within of Al-Qaeda, or the war on terror, or the Bush Administration. Yet there’s an unmistakable sense in the movie of a connection between the post-9/11 actions of the American government and the vehemence with which new terrorist cells assemble. About the most explicit reference to the tenor of the times comes when an assimilated Pakistani-American friend of Hassan’s tells him, “ I see the looks I get on airplanes.”

The director Joseph Castelo and his cinematographer Lisa Rinzler devise, in one brief moment, an ingenuous visual metaphor for the unease that permeates American life. They show a wide angle of the Manhattan skyline at twilight, in all its splendor. On the right half of the frame, the silhouette of a hand dangles or pulls at strings, the implication being that even as formidable a place as New York can be played like a puppet, easily manipulated.

Upon his release, Hassan (Ayad Akhtar, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Castelo) seeks refuge in the comfortable New Jersey home of his childhood friend Sayeed (Firdous Bamji) and his wife Farida (Sarita Choudhury). Hassan pretends to have come to New York to interview for engineering jobs. Yet after some time spent in the company of a loving family, some things shift for Hassan. You see his slow slide, almost a seduction, into the good life that America can offer. A quiet flirtation begins between Hassan and Sayeed’s beautiful younger sister Duri (playfully, vivaciously acted by Nandana Sen) and the two have such strong chemistry together that you can hardly doubt Hassan for doubting his mission. At one point, Duri trades her contemporary clothing for traditional Pakistani dress, and the look of approval and desire in Hassan’s eyes nearly overwhelms them both.

Akhtar superbly portrays a man divided. There’s an incisive scene of Hassan, who has begun driving a cab, having a friendly chat with a female passenger. As if performing for her, or dreaming his way into another life, Hassan pretends that Sayeed’s son Ali is his own son. “What’s your wife’s name?” the lady in the back seat asks. And the question brings him up short.

The War Within isn’t merely unsettling and provocative; it is also supremely satisfying.

October 2005