People Tell Me I Look Like Han Solo.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
  DVD Review: Traitor

I love spy movies, or at least, a particular kind of spy movie. I’m not really into the over-the-top nature of the James Bond movies – I can appreciate them as pure action flicks, but as ostensible espionage movies, they’re just too damn silly – but director Doug Liman breathed new life into the spy flick with 2002’s surprise smash The Bourne Identity, and Paul Greengrass refined it even further with his even-more-brilliant follow-ups, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. The Bourne films brought spy movies down to earth (relatively speaking, of course; they’re still movies, and still filled with various sorts of “action” that I’m sure stretch plausibility when compared to actual espionage work), focusing, quite literally, on intelligence, in both the espionage sense of the word and its more common use. Having read a couple of books about actual spies (including Robert Baer’s excellent See No Evil, the basis for much of the equally-excellent Syriana), these sorts of movies, which emphasize tense conversations between fiercely intelligent people rather than on watches that shoot lasers or massive explosions, are precisely the kinds of spy movies I love. And Traitor is very much in that mold.

Traitor is small film but is broad in scope, both literally and figuratively. It tackles the contemporary issue of radical Islamic terrorism, which makes it feel even more immediately real-world than the Bourne movies. The plot follows Samir Horn (Don Cheadle), a former U.S. special-forces soldier and devout Muslim who gets picked up by FBI Agent Clayton (Guy Pearce) for selling explosives to terrorist groups. It appears that Horn has been using his explosives knowledge to build bombs for and train Islamic terrorists, but as with most spy movies, there’s considerably more going on. Traitor’s tagline, “The truth is complicated,” is very apt; it’s evident from the opening frames that Horn isn’t just some terrorist or mercenary – he may actually be working undercover for the CIA. As the film unfolds, Horn is placed in increasingly difficult situations, trapped between the rock of maintaining his cover in the terrorist underground – not to mention his faith – and the hard place that is Clayton’s FBI investigation.

Traitor is a smart, taut thriller that doesn’t use gimmicky twists to create tension. Instead, the tension comes from the fact that Cheadle invests Samir with such depth and complexity – not to mention pathos – that just watching him talk to people, be it FBI agents or terrorists or his estranged girlfriend conveys to the audience the incredible pressures the character is under. Traitor follows the legacy of great undercover cop/agent movies by really making the audience feel the perpetual state of fear and anxiety the protagonist lives in, and having a brilliant actor like Don Cheadle at the centre goes a long way.

Speaking of great actors, Traitor has quite a few. Guy Pearce, who can always be relied upon to do top-quality work, makes Clayton into an actual, three-dimensional character as opposed to just an FBI attack dog chasing down the hero. Clayton’s from the South, the son of a Baptist minister, and his own religious upbringing – and his considerable knowledge of and respect for Islam – gives the character a depth that I wasn’t expecting, and the way his background mirrors Horn’s helps lift Traitor above the average spy thriller. Jeff Daniels turns up in a few scenes as Horn’s CIA contact, and despite his limited screen time, he makes his character somehow seem appropriately shady (he’s a CIA guy, after all) and also trustworthy and decent at the same time. And Saïd Taghmaoui, one of my favourite character actors – he turns up in lots of movies and TV shows, unfortunately often playing some kind of terrorist – is great as Samir’s “friend” in the terrorist community who puts him into contact with the terrorist mastermind he’s ultimately trying to stop. Most of Taghmaoui’s scenes are with Cheadle, and the fact that he holds his own with such a talented actor really says something.

Another thing I loved about Traitor was its moral ambiguity. While much of its premise – a devout Muslim working undercover for the U.S. government to undermine terrorists – is similar to the excellent Showtime series Sleeper Cell (read me gush about it here), Traitor is even more interested in grey areas than black-and-white distinctions between good and evil. Samir has to do things in the name of duty that have serious psychological repercussions, not unlike the similar moral themes of the new Bond movies. And despite having a tiny budget compared to the 007 or Bourne films, Traitor really does feel like an “international thriller,” with locales all over the world, from the Middle East to Europe to Washington D.C. to Toronto (it’s always nice to see my hometown represented in a movie as Toronto and not as a stand-in for New York or another big American city).

But Traitor isn't perfect. There isn’t a whole lot of “action” in the film, which isn’t really a problem on its own, but considering the scale writer-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff is shooting for, the film feels sort of small-scale at times, despite the globe-trotting locales. Nachmanoff, who wrote the screenplay for the climate-change disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow, is only directing his second film with Traitor (IMDB says he directed a 2001 movie I’ve never heard of called Hollywood Palms), and he may have bitten off more than he can chew as an auteur with such an ambitious project; there’s a few too many sequences that feel like they’re from a TV show and not a feature film, and it’s little intangibles like that that hold the film back from being truly great. On the whole though, Traitor is an above-average political thriller that’s definitely worth your time if you look for more out of spy movies than fight scenes and big explosions.



The Traitor DVD comes with a couple of short featurettes, one on the action sequences (it’s pretty short, given the aforementioned lack of action, but it held my attention), and another on the movie’s locations. There’s also audio commentary from Nachmanoff and Cheadle, who also produced the film. The commentary is surprisingly light and conversational despite the movie’s sober, serious tone (they point out that a terrorist’s attempt at levity near the beginning may be the only joke in the entire film). They swap stories about the production, and share a nice rapport while also providing some cool insights into the movie. However there is one thing about Traitor that I found pretty fascinating that wasn't mentioned anywhere on the DVD, and that's the fact that Steve Martin – yes, that Steve Martin – came up with the story. I'm assuming he had little to no involvement with the actual production, but that's a pretty interesting little factoid that isn't acknowledged anywhere. It's a weird (and admittedly incredibly minor) omission, but overall the extras on the Traitor DVD, while not great in number, are pretty solid.

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