Upon reflection of seeing the internal struggles and conflicts of a would-be Islamic fundamentalist intent on blowing up Grand Central Station in Joseph Costelo's THE WAR WITHIN, two thoughts pop into mind: one, that we have arrived at a comfortable enough distance in time from the incalculable tragedy of the terrorist attacks of September 11th for them to be directly sourced within popular culture; and two, that as a New Yorker, you can almost watch as locations you frequent daily become targets on-screen without too much wincing. Are these good things?
Recent films like HOTEL RWANDA, THE CONSTANT GARDENER and IN MY COUNTRY have taken recent real-life or close-to-real-life tragedies and repurposed them for our cinematic consumption; often shedding interrogation-intense light on international horrors that skip by our news radars. THE WAR WITHIN, on the other hand, deals with still-controversial and fresh events and issues that happened in our and, personally, my backyard. Specifically, the film centers on Hassan (Ayad Akhtar, who co-wrote the screenplay), a Pakistani-born, American-educated and westernized Parisian who is abducted in a terrorist sweep (by who, it's never clear) soon after September 11th, 2001. After horrid treatment, Hassan reappears in the present day as an Islamic fundamentalist sent to New York City, tasked as an engineer for an unnamed terrorist group hell-bent on revisiting new horrors upon the city. While in New York, Hassan stays with Sayeed (Firdous Bamji), a childhood friend, who has assimilated himself and his family quite well into the American dream. As Hassan acquaints his present-self with his past, internal conflict arises. Will he actually go through with his assignment?
Based only on the fact that it portrays the mindset of a terrorist - the "other side" if you will - THE WAR WITHIN is, without a doubt, an important film. Like the films previously mentioned, the producers and filmmakers deserve an enormous amount of credit bringing something like THE WAR WITHIN to the screen. Truthfully, it speaks to overall power of cinema that a rare point-of-view can be given voice and outlet. This is not to say, however, that THE WAR WITHIN is a particularly good film. Hassan's "will-he" or "won't he" conflict is by no means enough to carry an entire film and the middle of its 90 minute span sags from its tiresome prolonging. Other plot devices, like an almost re-kindled romance between Hassan and Sayeed's way too-cute sister, Farida (Sarita Choudhury) and Hassan's fundamentalist 101 education of Sayeed's young son feel awkward, forced and artificial; they suffer from a lack of any real exposition. The best external conflicts, that between Hassan and his old friend, Sayeed, and Hassan and his shaky partner, Abdul, are left under-fed as a result. Until the very end, Costelo's portrayal of the America Sayeed and his family have assimilated into is way too squeaky clean to be believed; any subtle fear of and prejudice towards the main characters is non-existent. Indeed it is the end that finally delivers some unforgettable moments; the scene where Hassan passes the innocent men, women and children he may soon after kill being the most compelling.
They say time heals all wounds; but I wonder what the reaction would have been to a movie like 2001's PEARL HARBOR, had it been released a few years after the original tragedy? Will there be some silly, effects-laden romantic adventure movie made about the events of September 11th fifty years from now? Probably. Until that day, however, we can be at least be treated to a serious yet flawed treatment of events we are still trying to understand.
**1/2 of *****