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The War Within

The War Within

Directed by Joseph Castelo

Magnolia Pictures

4 Stars

“The War Within” is an ambitious and courageous film. It is ambitious because it endeavors to engage the sympathies of a Western audience for an Islamic terrorist, and it is courageous because it attempts this feat in a political climate where terms like “monster,” “killer,” and “evildoer” dominate the discourse on terrorism.

In “War,” there are no monsters. There are only men and women whom circumstance and ideology have led them to commit monstrous acts.

“War”’s protagonist is an American-educated Pakistani engineer named Hasan (Ayad Akhtar). Hasan’s brother is an Islamic radical and a terror suspect—American intelligence believes that Hasan may have information as to his whereabouts and possible terror plans.

Rather than question him directly, American intelligence has Hasan abducted and shipped to his native Pakistan for interrogation: the rationale is that in Pakistan the Geneva Convention’s prohibitions on torture are inapplicable, and Hasan can be subjected to coercive violence if need be.

Hasan is tortured, repeatedly. He finds his only solace in friendship to Khalid (Charles Daniel Sandoval), a fellow detainee, who offers him food, water, and, most significantly, membership in a terrorist cell. Hasan initially refuses, but when the film cuts three years into the future Hasan and Khalid are in the final stages of planning for a multi-phase bombing in New York City.

At this juncture the film threatens to become a conventional revenge narrative: with Hasan avenging himself of his torture by murdering citizens of his captors’ nation. However, “War” resists convention and instead indicts the calculus of the “an eye for an eye” ethos. This stands in stark contrast to American action films like “Collateral Damage,” in which the logic of retribution is never called into question, and the act of revenge is celebrated as cathartic and restorative.

In New York, Hasan is reunited with his childhood friend Sayeed (Firdous Bamji). Sayeed has found success in America as a physician and enjoys a comfortable middle-class existence. Sayeed and his family put a human face on the American “other” that Hasan has come to terrorize, and the remainder of the film chronicles his struggle to reconcile the anger that set him on his path of destruction to his burgeoning feelings of affection for his American hosts.

The scenes between Hasan and Sayeed’s sister Duri (Nandana Sen) are especially powerful. Sen’s performance in these scenes demands special notice: she conveys compassion, yearning, and confusion with the poise of a true ingénue. Without resorting to bombast or histrionics, she commands absolute attention in every frame.

Akhtar rises to Sen’s level—his face becomes contorted with desire and fear whenever they share the screen. These scenes make it clear that “War”’s title refers as much to the rival impulses bearing on Hasan as to the larger political conflict in which he is involved. By exploring the gentler facets of Hasan’s personality, the film reminds us that its protagonist is no monster, but a man with wholly human capacities for love and hate alike.

Utlimately, “War”’s ambition outstrips its indie-film aesthetic: it is a political tragedy on the scale of “Doctor Zhivago,” constrained in its execution by a “Clerks”-level budget. As a cost-cutting measure, “War” is shot on high-definition video, and like many films of this medium it seems perennially underexposed.

Also, it lacks the rapturous quality of a celluloid production—which is unfortunate because many of the film’s otherwise beautiful shots lose a bit of their visual poetry due to video’s representational limitations.

However, what “War” lacks in visual refinement it more than compensates for in thematic resonance and superior acting. “The War Within” is a compelling and important film, and it deserves to be seen. It may not change minds on either side of the Islam/West divide, but it will certainly touch hearts.

—Staff writer Bernard L. Parham can be reached at parham@fas.harvard.edu.
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