Back in the fall I twice saw previews for The War Within and wanted very much to see the film. For whatever reason, it didn't get a wide theatrical release and I was excited to see it out on dvd, so added it to the Netflix queue. It makes a good companion piece to Paradise Now, which I saw a few weeks ago.
Written by and starring Ayad Akhtar, and directed by his Columbia Film School compatriot Joseph Castelo, The War Within is an intense look at the personal and interpersonal conflicts that arise when a Pakistani man, Hassan, is driven to wanting to commit an act of suicide terrorism on American soil.
Akhtar is sort of an accomplished unknown, clearly someone to watch. He's crafted a taut, tense script with believable dialogue. It's not preachy, it's not overwrought or maudlin. He plays Hassan full of brooding conviction, a man who bears the physical and mental scars of his time being interrogated and tortured in a Pakistani jail after having been snatched off the streets of Paris. Hassan isn't presented as a raving fanatic. It's almost as if he's an everyman who just happens to have come to the US on a mission to wreak havoc, death and destruction. He has become, though, loveless, unable to connect to anything or anyone save for his hatred of the west and his hope for salvation through the ultimate sacrifice to his cause.
There are glimpses as to why Hassan becomes radicalized, but they are fleeting and surface-level. Though it might have provided some more depth to have explored that territory a bit more, too much focus might have distracted from the central story, which revloves around how two boyhood best friends ended up in such different places, and what happens when they confront each other's new realities.
The relationship between Sayeed and Hassan has become strained. Sayeed is a physician, having accepted some Western ways and befriending Americans. Hassan views America as an evil oppressor. Still they bound together by old forces -- the obvious attraction between Hassan and Sayeed's sister Duri (played by the astonishingly beautiful Nandana Sen, daughter of Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen. She's fast becoming a Bollywood star) and the budding relationship that Hassan develops with Sayeed's impressionable young son Ali. In a key moment, Sayeed grdugingly allows his friend, who he by then knows to have become orthodox, to teach Ali how to pray.
It's not perfect, but it is often gripping, and you come to care about the characters, even Hassan, as you hope that he lets go of his hate and accepts what could be a fulfilling life among good friends in a land that offers him, a Western educated (schooled in the US and France) engineer, plenty of opportunity.
As I've written before, seeing and being moved by a film like this is not any tacit or explicit affirmation of the motives of terrorists. This kind closed-mindedness, given national voice by the likes of Charles Krauthammer, shows a fundamental misundertanding of one of the main purposes of art -- to make us confront our interpretations of reality and understand why we think the way we do and understand why others might come away with a completely different view of the same reality.