the circular runner

Spy Films for a New America

In Uncategorized on September 7, 2008 at 8:33 pm

In Traitor, Don Cheadle plays Samir Horn, who through the course of much of the film remains an unknown quantity.  He is an American ex-Special Forces soldier, a Muslim who seems sympathetic to terrorists, a weapons trader with no real ideology or country of allegiance, and he may or may not be a CIA operative gone bad.  The supposed challenge of the film—the reason why critics are calling this a thinking man’s Bourne Identity—is to figure out what Samir Horn truly is.  But that’s not it at all.  The true challenge of the film runs deeper.  Traitor asks us to define for ourselves what it means to betray one’s government—what we mean when we say someone is one of us.  

Director and writer Jeffrey Nachmanoff does not make the task easy.   Often, spy movies present characters that we have to put into boxes.  They usually make the exercise easy because we only have to decide if the character in question is good or bad—the assumption being that we in the audience already know what those terms mean.  In a movie treating the Middle East, good means us, our side, the West, whereas bad is them, the Muslim, the East.  But what if these categories were mixed up, made a bit muddier?  That’s what Traitor does, and does well.

Traitor is not a perfect movie by any means.  As we follow Samir and watch him involve himself in plots to kill innocent Americans, we are forced to see the other side of the argument against Islamic extremists.  Problem is Nachmanoff does this in a facile manner.  We are shown young, naive Muslim men being indoctrinated by cynical elders who call down the history of America’s many crimes in the region.  Regardless of whether we agree with those arguments, they ring hollow because they seem gratuitous, as if the director wants to make sure we understand that the issues presented are not black and white.  But Cheadle’s Samir has already confused good and bad for us.  He does not allow us to choose between good and bad, us and them, because he is both. 

Through Samir, we are forced to examine two things we don’t usually look at in our spy movies: race and religion.  And in this way, Traitor is much more pertinent to our current situation than other spy movies of the recent past.  A character like Jason Bourne, we can safely assume, is a good Anglo-Saxon man, and though not much of a church-goer, if he did ever make it to a service on Sunday, he’d probably not be anything more exotic than a Lutheran.  Who cares anyway?  His enemies are as clear cut as he is.  He’s blond, blue-eyed, and even when he speaks a foreign language, he does so with an American accent.  He’s definitely one of us.

In Traitor, we’re not so sure.  Samir is African born, raised by an American mother in Chicago, but a mother who wears a head scarf.  In a scene early in the movie, he is asked what language he dreams in, and he replies that he does so in English.  Yet he reads and speaks Arabic, and the color of his skin allows him to blend in as he walks through the alleys and hidden corners of the Middle East.  Could this kind of character truly be American then?  

Traitor does pose an answer to this question, though we might be surprised by it.  The thing that makes Samir American is not his language or his American mother; it is his Muslim faith.  It is his faith that makes him fight for his country and try to protect the innocent, whereas it is his Americanness, his belief in our government that makes him kill, transforming him into something truly foreign to us. 

That’s the paradox of the movie, and that’s what pushes Traitor beyond others in the spy genre.  In the Bourne series and others like it, the argument seems to be that one man can rid the tree of a few bad apples.  Traitor pushes farther and asks us to own the tree and to look at it for ourselves. 

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