A Pakistani engineering graduate student is walking down a street in Paris when he is brutally abducted by Western intelligence agents, whisked off to a Karachi prison, tortured and accused wrongly of being a terrorist. This abrupt and harrowing opening sequence, clearly post-9/11, sets the tone for all that is to come in Joseph Castelo's bleakly compelling "The War Within."
Just as abruptly the film moves forward three years as the University of Maryland graduate, Hassan (Ayad Akhtar, who co-wrote the film with Castelo and co-producer Tom Glynn), returns to the U.S. smuggled in a cargo container. Hassan's ordeal has converted him to the Islamic fundamentalism that previously repelled him. Hassan is met by a member of a terrorist cell, and he is to be an integral part of its deadly mission.
Secret shelter has been arranged, but Hassan opts to stay with lifelong friend Sayeed (Firdous Bamji) and his family at their comfortable home in New Jersey. Unlikely as the housing arrangement seems, it serves to present effectively the fervent ideologue Hassan has become. Levelheaded, laid-back Sayeed believes that pursuing the American dream does not mean betraying his heritage. Sayeed is surprised by Hassan's religious fervor but accepts him like a brother, as does his wife, Farida (Sarita Choudhury), and his sister Duri (Nandana Sen), who has apparently been carrying a torch for Hassan. Sayeed is at first perplexed that Hassan has shown up out of the blue after three years, but Hassan glibly explains that he was caught up in his studies in Canada.
Hassan is not so closed-minded as to not feel the impact of the warm hospitality of old friends, but he's not visibly plunged into self-doubt about the validity of his mission. Hassan understandably keeps Sayeed and his family at arm's length yet commences to indoctrinate Sayeed's impressionable small son Ali (Varun Sriram). Suspense builds as to whether Hassan will follow through as a terrorist — or for that matter, whether anything will happen to deter him.
Castelo and Akhtar have set out to establish the distinction between mainstream Muslim Americans and Islamic terrorists and their dire effect upon ordinary Muslims and, beyond that, to suggest some of the forces that drive some Muslims to become terrorists in the first place. "The War Within" is not entirely free from an aura of didacticism or contrivance, but the film by and large functions as a taut thriller. A drastic act late in the film on the part of Duri seems somewhat implausible, but that does not deter "The War Within" from emerging as a mostly well-wrought and timely tragedy.
'The War Within'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Some language, brutality. Too intense for youngsters
A Magnolia Pictures presentation of an HDNet Films production in association with Coalition Films. Director Joseph Castelo. Producers Jason Kliot, Joana Vicente, Tom Glynn. Executive producers Todd Wagner, Mark Cuban. Screenplay by Ayad Akhtar, Joseph Castelo, Tom Glynn. Cinematographer Lisa Rinzler. Editor Malcolm Jamieson. Music David Holmes. Costumes Sylvia Grieser. Production designer Stephanie Carroll. Art director Ernesto Solo.
In English and Urdu, with English subtitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times