"Traitor" asks a question that can only be answered by that cruel mistress, the marketplace: How much moral ambiguity and narrative intricacy will an audience handle in the realm of a terrorism-themed contemporary thriller? Enough, I hope, to respond to "Traitor." It tells a good, snakelike story, slithering in some unpredictable directions.
All along the way Don Cheadle, who plays the mysterious operative creating and running an espionage maze of his own design, reaffirms his excellence. He is an honest, responsive actor, and as a rogue ex-U.S. Special Operations officer and highly conflicted Muslim, Cheadle recalls a variety of old-school stars—everyone from Spencer Tracy to Sidney Poitier—in the way he keeps it simple and puts the story needs ahead of his own.
The story was cooked up by Steve Martin. Yes, that Steve Martin. The entire narrative constitutes a series of spoilers, so I'll be brief and cryptic. We begin with a quick prologue in 1978 Sudan. A boy witnesses a car bombing. Swiftly, we're whisked into present-day Yemen, and the Sudanese boy has become a man shaped by violence. He is Samir Horn (Cheadle). How did this man, whom we later learn spent many years in Chicago, become part of the jihadist cause represented by Omar (Said Taghmaoui)? That's one story track. Another is a riddle: While the film's title clues you into Samir's double-edged nature, "Traitor" plays an intriguing shell game with the specifics, and with the role in the story played by CIA contractor Carter (Jeff Daniels).
Most screenwriters, working with this sort of scenario, would go out of their way to marginalize and fully, madly, deeply demonize the jihad-driven characters. "Traitor," despite what you're likely to hear on "Hannity & Colmes," is not anti-American. It does, however, let Samir—an ambiguous and shape-shifting character—run the story and, for much of it, stay one step ahead of his global pursuers, FBI agents Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Archer (Neal McDonough).
The writer-director is Jeffrey Nachmanoff, who wrote the eco-disaster pic "The Day After Tomorrow." This one's a lot more interesting. What Nachmanoff, making his feature directorial debut, does best here is bring a sudden, nerve-racking quality to the violence. Most political thrillers are preoccupied with exciting the audience and making it feel good about the bad guys dying in brainlessly colorful ways. This one is more about pulling us into its labyrinth and messing with our sympathies, craftily.
A few things hold "Traitor" back from complete success. Now and then the storytelling slips out of complexity into perplexity. The climax's resolution is clever in theory, but it's bound to leave some people cold.
And on a medium-size budget, based on recent cinematic evidence, the toughest thing for computer-generated effects to achieve convincingly is a fiery explosion.
Problems aside, this is a good, twisty, absorbing work. "For years we have been planting martyrs in our midst," one character says, as the jihadist plot to disrupt America in its heartland reveals itself. Post-9/11, the film industry has lost its bearings regarding what will satisfy a mainstream crowd. Can a story that races around the world, only to conclude that the world is a matrix of murky, destructive alliances, find a receptive audience? Thanks to Cheadle's watchful intelligence, among other things, I certainly hope so.
See the trailer and find local showtimes for "Traitor."