In 'War,' filmmakers tiptoe through minefield

What goes on inside the mind of a terrorist who is willing to blow himself for the cause? "The War Within" is one of the few films that attempts to deal with this subject in a nonexploitative way.

Hassan (Ayad Akhtar, who also wrote the script with director Joseph Castelo) is a Pakistani engineering student in Paris who is abducted by Western authorities for suspected terrorism and illegally shipped back to Pakistan, where he is jailed and tortured. His imprisonment radicalizes him. While staying with unsuspecting Pakistani friends in New York, he joins a cell intent on blowing up Grand Central Terminal.

The movie itself is a minefield - one that the filmmakers keep tiptoeing around. They have said that they want the audience to empathize, rather than sympathize, with Hassan. And up to a point, they have made this easy for us to do: Mild-mannered to the point of self-effacement, Hassan is a man who has suffered hideous punishments (which we see repeatedly in flashbacks to his incarceration).

Yet by keeping his culpability ambiguous, the filmmakers avoid the real issue: Was he or wasn't he a terrorist? It should make a difference to us if Hassan was guilty. If he wasn't, he's a casualty of criminal zealousness, and that's another movie altogether. Castelo sets up two very different films and never commits to either one. We're left to sort it all out.

Hassan's blankness is a symptom of the filmmakers's lack of commitment. As an actor, Akhtar is often blah when he means to be understated. His performance has few emotional levels. We are told, for example, that Hassan was once a real roué with a taste for Western music, but we never see him tempted in New York, if only for a moment. If Castelo wants to demonstrate how Hassad became robotized by Muslim fundamentalism, then wouldn't his tragedy hit us harder if we had some glimmer of what he was like before his arrest? It's difficult to emphatize with a void.

Still, there are some intermittent moments of power in The War Within. Hassan's close relationship with his secular friend's son Ali (Valun Sriram) is sensitively drawn: This young and impressionable boy is thirsting for religious ritual and would perhaps not even condemn Hassan if he knew the truth about him. Ali represents the new generation that will be sacrificed to terrorism. And there is a powerful sequence near the end when Hassan walks into Grand Central and surveys the people he will soon incinerate. (It's reminiscent of a famous scene from The Battle of Algiers).

But at the same time, I kept asking myself: How in the world did the crew get permission to film inside the terminal? Grade: B

Not Rated

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