Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Terrorism is a dubious subject for entertainment.

I read a review of the new film, Traitor, starring Don Cheadle last week. Let me first say this: I haven't seen the film yet. What I'm writing here is based on my reading of just one review — a pretty risky endeavor. But nobody ever said I was the quiet, wait-and-see type; I'll dive in with both feet. Traitor is about a

conflicted Muslim who is either an undercover U.S. operative or a ruthless killer, or maybe both.. . Cheadle stars as former U.S. special operations officer Samir Horn, who has infiltrated the confusing and chaotic world of Islamic terrorism so well that the FBI is unaware that he is (probably) working for the United States. . .
The film's moral reasoning is all parenthetical: There are bad guys out there (but they're not all irredeemably bad), and while we must fight them, we shouldn't sink to their level (except when we have to). This doesn't add up to real nuance. It just encourages people to break the rules and feel bad about it. The film, which borrows a line from Samir as its subtitle ("The Truth Is Complicated"), would be stronger if it thought more simplistically: Terrorism is always wrong, as is breaking the laws of civilized behavior to fight it.

But who is to define "civilized behavior"? In theory, everybody knows that terrorism is wrong, or at the very least, uncivilized.

If they didn't know it, we'd have lots of "civilized terrorists" running around, right?

Cheadle's character apparently is one of the "good Muslims" we heard so much about in the days after September 11, 2001–the ones who are good neighbors, co-workers, and friends. Like the Americanized Muslims who have allowed the culture around them to influence their understanding of the faith, Cheadle's character is conflicted about shedding blood, about anything violent. Perhaps he needs to re-read his Koran.

(On a side note, I wonder how many American Christians will honestly recognize that in their own lives? That they have allowed the culture around them to influence their understanding of the faith? Contrary to popular opinion, Jesus was not a white, middle class suburbanite with an SUV and 2.4 children.)

The review closes with this:

Terrorism is a dubious subject for entertainment. The excesses of fear it inspires are corrosive to society. . .The things that are inherently exciting in a film about terrorism -- violence, torture and the ticking clock that portends doom -- are the very sort of things that short-circuit our ability to think rationally about the threats we face.

And there's no catharsis in it, no matter who wins in the end, because the terrorist, as cinematic actor, is never defeated. He's always lying in wait, ready for the next film, ready to reenact the old fears and prejudices. Even a film such as "Traitor," which tries to wring its hands a little along the way, brings us back to the same place: waiting stupidly for the next bomb to go off.

Now there's a jolly, cheery ending: the terrorist is never defeated, so the film leaves us tense, always looking over our collective shoulder, and unable to think rationally.

Pass the popcorn. . .and let the conversation continue.

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