One of the strongest -- and sure to be controversial -- films of the year, The War Within goes places that other films wouldn't dare go. Thoughtfully written and nicely acted, it follows an Islamic suicide bomber who comes to New York City with a deadly plan. The film in no way endorses the man's motives or his actions, but presents him as a fully dimensional human being in a commendably responsible way.
The film opens on a scene of a Pakistani-born engineering student being abducted from the streets of Paris in broad daylight. Flown to Karachi, the bewildered and frightened Hassan (newcomer Ayad Akhtar, who also co-wrote the script) is imprisoned and tortured for unspecified terrorist affiliations. It seems to be a case of guilt by association, since Hassan's brother, a militant Muslim, apparently is engaged in some sort of extremist activities. It's clear that the US government is behind Hassan's abduction, but because the United States "officially" rejects torture, political prisoners are deposited in "friendly" countries where torture is accepted and practiced.
After three years in hell, Hassan is released. Radicalized by his experiences, he stows away on a cargo ship and makes his way to New York City with the express purpose of joining a cell of Islamic fundamentalists who are planning a terrorist attack in the heart of Manhattan.
Concocting a story that he is in New York for a job interview, Hassan drops in on his childhood best friend Sayeed (Firdous Bamji), to whom he has not spoken in years. A secular Muslim, Sayeed has made a success of himself in America. He lives with his wife Farida (Sarita Choudhury) and two kids in New Jersey, is an active and respected member of his community, and clearly loves his adopted country. Also living at the house is Sayeed's very Westernized sister Duri (Nandana Sen), on whom, it is obvious, Hassan still has a crush.
Sayeed opens his home to Hassan, who keeps the true nature of his visit secret. Meeting clandestinely with the other terrorists, Hassan learns that his assignment is to set off a bomb inside Grand Central Station. Thinking her old friend just wants to sightsee, Duri shows him around the magnificent structure. It turns out her office is just blocks away.
The morning of the planned attack, FBI agents raid the terrorists' hideout and arrest all those present. Hassan and cell leader Khalid (Charles Daniel Sandoval) have not yet arrived at the site, and are thus spared. Khalid goes underground after cautioning his comrade that they must put their plans on hold. But Hassan is not happy with this turn of events. As the days pass, he finds himself drawing closer to Sayeed's young children and increasingly torn by his attraction to Duri. Struggling against these feelings, he decides to act, with or without Khalid.
The well-structured screenplay, co-written by Akhtar, director Joseph Castelo, and producer Tom Glynn, eschews melodrama while generating believable tension and suspense. The audience really does not know which way the story will go, although some sort of collateral damage must be expected, no matter what the ending.
Outwardly, Hassan has not changed all that radically. While Sayeed is uncomfortable with his old friend's newly devout attitude, he has no way of knowing the depths of his anger and despair. Hassan's hatred of the United States springs from an interpretation of Islam that was forged while in detention, a part of his life he does not share with Sayeed.
The War Within benefits from an understated script -- one that constantly propels the story forward without ever feeling rushed. Shooting in high-definition digital video, talented cinematographer Lisa Rinzler does wonders on a shoestring budget.
The actors are all convincing. In his feature debut, Akhtar avoids the kind of crazed emotionalism one might expect from a "villain." Rather than outwardly angry or driven, he projects the quiet desperation and determination of someone who is lashing out the only way he sees available to him. By the end, the story has come full circle, as the injustices of the past claim new victims.
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