You could feel the audience slump and grow silent seeing the preview for this movie. People stopped gobbling their popcorn, ceased checking their text messages, sank back into a post-9/11 mood of reflection: Oh, you mean we have to think about that again. Well, yes, and The War Within deserves a lot of credit for making us think about suicide bombers and Islamic terror in American cities (again New York) without sensationalizing the subject.
In outline, the plot coincidently resembles that of Lorraine Adams' Harbor (new in paper and the most important novel of last year): A peaceful Muslim is radicalized by torture and injustice in his home country, then enters the U.S. illegally in search of what we expect to be bloody vengeance. Or, to put it differently: The chickens come home to roost. Beginning with his forced repatriation from Paris to a Pakistan jail, we see in flashbacks how Hassan (co-writer Ayad Akhtar) goes from being just another polite, well-mannered grad student to a polite, well-mannered jihadist. It emerges that his brother has been killed protesting the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan; the only one who shows him any compassion in prison is an Islamic radical, Khalid (Charles Daniel Sandoval), who gradually recruits him to the cause. It's a perfect system for creating suicide bombers, and War leaves no doubt as to the trigger: Our special-ops guys kidnap Hassan in France, leading him down the rabbit hole of plastic explosives, suicide vests, and a perverted Koran; he's as much our creation as Khalid's.
Arriving in New York harbor in a shipping container (Department of Homeland Security, hello . . . ?), Hassan finds refuge in the Jersey City home of his kindly childhood pal Sayeed (Firdous Bamji) and family when his cell's multibomber scheme is delayed. Sayeed's son immediately warms to their guest, and Sayeed's sister, Duri (Nandana Sen), now has grown-up feelings about her old puppy love from Karachi. So why blow himself up now? America could indeed be the land of opportunity for Hassan, a place of beginnings, not endings.
It takes a while to reach this dramatic crux for Hassan; and War, which ought to feel more tense and urgent, is a sleeper cell of a movie—explosive, but with too long a fuse. The film has a kind of academic neutrality to it, being fair-minded and well played with regard to all its characters, but that tone also masks a fundamental vagueness. Hassan never shows much obvious hatred for the decadent West, even when he takes a job with an airport shuttle company—Taxi Driver without the interior monologues of loathing and disgust. There's a bit of confrontation and political debate at a community barbecue, which you'd rather see earlier, when Hassan was being indoctrinated. War's execution lags behind its logic, yet that terrible plausibility sticks with you—as it should—when Hassan walks the crowded streets of Manhattan. It reminds you of any place where people gather freely: a train station, a restaurant, a movie theater. (NR)