Throughout both 2007 and 2008, moviegoers saw what seemed like an endless string of movies focusing on or around the ongoing War on Terror. For a majority of these films, which ranged from character dramas (“Stop-Loss” or “Grace is Gone”), political thrillers (“Lions for Lambs” or “Rendition”), to just good ol’ fashioned action films (“The Kingdom”), the response from audiences was far from welcoming. Most of these titles, along with a few others I didn’t mention, suffered through a rather brief stint at the box office and didn’t enjoy much more success on DVD. To me the lacking success for these films would seem to be enough to get the studios’ attention, and make them aware that audiences just don’t want to go to the movies to watch something that involves a topic that can be seen daily on any news channel known to man.
Regardless of all of this, the political thriller “Traitor” starring Don Cheadle and Guy Pearce was released to theaters this summer. If memory serves me, this is merely the latest film released in the War on Terror genre; I’m calling it a genre due to the surprisingly large number of movies based on the subject that has been released thus far. I personally question the reasoning behind even releasing this movie in the first place, especially in light of all the losses the studios have accrued over the previous films; but I guess the various studio executives share a sort of “It only takes one to make a difference” mentality. So, does “Traitor” have what it takes to win over audiences even with the touchy subject matter or does it fall prey to the same general lack of interest that has befallen the rest of the genre?
After a series of terrorist attacks in various locations around the Middle East and Europe, along with a prison break in Yemen, the U.S. government is desperately seeking answers as to who is responsible, especially in light of a new threat targeting the country’s heartland. Assisting in the investigation is FBI agent Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) who finds himself with a rather short list of suspects, and one man on his list is raising his suspicions more than the others. The person of interest is a former U.S. Special Operations officer named Samir Horn (Don Cheadle), who appears to have become involved with the very group that may be responsible for the attacks. However, appearances may be deceiving as the further agent Clayton digs, the more evidence he discovers to suggest that perhaps the truth is much more complicated than it initially appeared to be.
What are the key components that are vital to a movie for it to be considered a thriller? Is it a great story, terrific actors and actresses, a hefty dose of the unexpected, or a general sense of uncertainty that will cause the audience to be on the edge of their seats at all times? The answer is that it’s not just one of these items, it is all of them. Each of these components are key to creating a top-notch thriller that will keep audiences entertained and enthralled from start to finish, and possibly creating repeat business if all goes well for the film.
In the case of “Traitor” many of those items were present, but not all of them. For the ones that made it into the film, there didn’t appear to be any emphasis on consistently maintaining the quality of these components throughout the duration. What I mean by that statement is when there were genuinely thrilling sequences or moments of the unexpected, they would either end in a way that made them feel unoriginal or be followed shortly thereafter by something so obviously tired and cliché that you would have to be a fool not to notice. Basically just when the movie seems to be heading in the right direction it falls apart prematurely.
The story for this film is intriguing, and the fact that we are delivered a viewpoint from both sides, lends the film some credit for trying to flesh out the how’s and why’s of the ongoing war. However, writer/director Jeffrey Nachmanoff (writer of “The Day After Tomorrow”), fails to create a completely engaging film due to falling prey to numerous movie pitfalls; such as, an overuse of character stereotypes for both the terrorists and the government agents, predictability within the story, and essentially becoming too trite and generic in the end. Perhaps if the screenplay had been more polished and willing to go even deeper into the more unexplored areas of the war, which it drifted in and out of throughout the film’s duration, and not been so overbearing with its various messages it was trying to get across; then perhaps the final product would have been better received, at least by this viewer.
Even if the movie’s storyline did run into its fair share of problems, one aspect of the film that cannot be slighted is the generally high-caliber cast, led by the talented Don Cheadle (“Hotel Rwanda”). Cheadle gives a terrific performance as Samir, a man who has sacrificed so much in this war, to the point that he wonders if it will ever be enough; especially in light of the regret he feels over some of the decisions he’s had to make along the way. In the role of the closest person Samir has to a friend, and one of the terrorist group’s masterminds, is actor Said Taghmaoui (“Vantage Point”). Said brings a fresh, new approach to the terrorist type of role, not allowing him to be portrayed in a hackneyed, cookie cutter cut-out sort of way that I had expected. At times he almost gives his character a sense of morality (twisted as it may be), while providing some form of reasoning and motives for why he is willing to do and plan the horrendous acts his group will commit.
As far as the quality of the characters goes, the two listed above is where the truly developed characters meet their end, and the stereotypical ones begin. Leading the way are actors Guy Pearce (“The Count of Monte Cristo”) and Neal McDonough (“Walking Tall”), who are both very talented actors in their own right, yet find themselves misused in this film. The two actors portray your typical, garden variety FBI duo; one of the agents is a level-headed, eternal optimist (Pearce) who believes in a suspect until he or she is proven guilty, and the other is a hot-headed pessimist (McDonough) who would rather lock a suspect up and throw away the key than actually get to any answers. Alongside them is Jeff Daniels (“Gettysburg”) as your typical government handler who knows much more about what is occurring than he is letting on, and for the sake of his mission and secrecy (and the storyline), he keeps the facts from everyone.
Lastly, the various actors portraying the many members of the terrorist group were given the least to do in the entire storyline. Aside from Said’s character, the other terrorists were nothing more than a bunch of nameless, evil men with no rhyme or reason to their apparent madness, who want nothing more than wanton violence and destruction to engulf the “evil” United States and its allies. Please, spare me the same old semantics I’ve seen and heard so many times before, it’s beginning to grow tiresome. It’s a shame that more wasn’t done to capitalize on the talent at this film’s disposal. At least, the entire cast did the best they could with the material they were given, so even at its most predictable and unoriginal moments, the film remains better than average.
While “Traitor” did manage to keep me moderately interested from start to finish, albeit to varying degrees of interest; the movie’s various pratfalls causes the film to devolve into being just another generic political thriller with high aspirations, yet poor execution.
“Traitor” is rated PG-13 for violence and language.