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Thinking Like a Terrorist:
Insights of a Former FBI Undercover Agent
by Mike German
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
. "Traitor"

Of all the underrated films of 2008, this is my pick--which may have something to do with it being a spy thriller.

African-American Samir Horn (Cheadle), a native Sudanese and a muslim, was raised in the U.S. after his father was killed by a car bomb and grew up to become a U.S. Army Special Forces operative. But that's the past. Now we see him as he enters the heavily guarded headquarters of a fanatic islamist chieftain in Yemen. The guards, led by an especially distrustful man named Omar (Said Taghmaoui), keep their fingers on their triggers as their leader confronts the stranger.

"What are you doing here?" the leader asks. Instant death is only a trigger-pull away and the black man has to talk fast. "I've got a truck full of Semtex explosive to sell you." When the truckload is confirmed Samir's would-be killers smile and turn into a ring of brothers.

Samir soon proves his creds to his new friends as an explosives expert--a prized addition to their cause. He singlehandedly builds two bombs, plants them in prearranged spots at the American Embassy and by remote triggering from a safe distance, sets them off. In terrorist circles, he's a hero, accepted and trusted by the upper circles of fanatic Islamist leadership.

A close bond is cemented with Omar, a smart tactician in the demented cause. When the entire cell is imprisoned after an arms sale goes wrong, it's Omar who rescues him, first from a murderous leader of an opposing faction in the prison yard and shortly thereafter from the prison itself.

A tense meeting with CIA specialist Carter (Jeff Daniels) tells us what we've suspected from the get-go, that Samir is a deep undercover agent in a rogue operation to gather intel and eliminate threats. In the embassy bombing, the Americans were to have pre-planted cadavers and cardboard cutouts to report as the body count but, Carter reports, unexpected members of a cleaning crew were actually killed. Samir can't forgive Carter or himself for having caused the death of innocents. His humanism doesn't allow him to accept it simply as unintended consequences in the fog of war.

As Samir struggles with his conscience and how far he can go to maintain his secret identity, he's introduced to the leaders of the cell and, with his advanced computer skills and bomb-making expertise, becomes a vital part of their plans for a wide, coordinated attack on U.S. soil that will rival 9/11. At the same time, his presence has come to the attention of FBI agents Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Max Archer (Neal McDonough) who have had the cell under electronic and human surveillance. When they identify the new player they assume they have a traitor on the playing field.

Complications and tensions grow as a mole at the agency frustrates an FBI capture and reveals ever more vexing challenges for Samir. What he ultimately does in the grand plan, and how he does it, is a major sequence of exquisitely high suspense ending in a way that leaves the audience in stunned satisfaction and the perpetrators starkly eviscerated --a fine piece of conceptual writing.

Jeffrey Nachmanoff's well researched script and taut direction takes advantage of diverse cultural flavors and nations for a well-mounted spy thriller that incorporates complex themes. The questionable part is in making Samir such an intellectual and spiritual thinker that his allegiences are rent by indecision and reflection.

As Cheadle struggles to express the convictions within a man who assimilates evil in order to destroy it, he becomes a Hamlet figure far from the trappings of royal philosophizing and high concept. Grappling with his faith and clandestine purposes, Cheadle brings to bear his considerable skill but makes choices that don't get farther than understatement and exploration in search of the moving target of consistency. As the moral and emotional center of the piece, this imparts to the movie a schizophrenic strain.

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Pearce acquits himself with determination and style, reminding us of his unique talent. He makes his FBI agent a single-mindedly intense and channelled character.

The charge that the bad guys are somewhat stereotypical may be correct, but there's an effort to give some dimensionality to them--especially to Omar (impressive Said Taghmaoui)--which ameliorates the unavoidable simplifications.

None of these negatives cripple the construct of intrigue, danger and cause. Having felt intense involvement by the last act, I could only give it a rating commensurate with the level of entertainment I experienced here.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Don Cheadle as Samir
A traitor, but to whom?

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