One thing that happens during times of international tension is that the writers and directors of political thrillers tend to emphasize the politics over the thrills. It’s part of a long and respected tradition, dating back at least to the period right before and after World War II, when Graham Greene and Eric Ambler invented the modern espionage novel. Greene and Ambler explored the paranoia of the post-war years by adapting pulp fiction—exotic locales, super-secret criminal syndicates, and protagonists plucked from their everyday lives and thrust into dangerous covert operations—to literary ends. John LeCarre mastered the form at the height of the Cold War, turning the thriller into an existential inquiry into the very nature not just of politics but of human relationships. That it’s descended largely into historical fiction (Alan Furst, Robert Wilson, and even Ian McEwan) and tech-porn (Tom Clancy and the various hacks operating under Robert Ludlum’s brand name) only underscores the relative geopolitical calm that the United States and the U.K. enjoyed until 9/11.
It’s not surprising that the global political and ideological upheaval of the last decade has infiltrated contemporary action films. There have been plenty of smart, recent movies that use the thriller blueprint as a starting point to consider the web of corruption, compromise, hubris, and indifference that underlies today’s international headlines—Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana, Fernando Meirelles’ The Constant Gardener—and even more that incorporate the same cynical outlook into well-executed action movie boilerplate: the Bourne series, the first couple of seasons of 24, the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate.
The trouble with director Jeffrey Nachmanoff’s Traitor is that its political observations are blindingly, painfully obvious, and, for nearly two-thirds of the film, they obscure the simple pleasures of what could have been a perfectly fine double-agent story. Don Cheadle stars as Samir Horn, an American Muslim planted by the CIA inside an Islamic terrorist network. His mission is to set up, and then prevent, a massive bombing on U.S. soil—essentially, to stop another 9/11.
When the FBI gets on his trail, though, in the form of agents Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Max Archer (Neal McDonough), Samir finds himself in the worst spot a mole could possibly be in: wanted by one federal agency, abandoned by another, and forced to prove himself to his terrorist targets by planting a set of bombs at the U.S. Embassy in Marseille.
It’s a situation that doesn’t need any extracurricular dramatization. But that’s just what Nachmanoff and story writer Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) provide. Nachmanoff and Martin don’t miss an opportunity to hit the viewer over the head with some example of just how complicated this whole international terrorism thing really is. Omar (Said Taghmaoui), the head of Samir’s cell, discusses, at length, U.S. policy in the Middle East to demonstrate the effect of that policy on recruiting new martyrs for the cause. Devout but un-fundamentalist Muslims are shown just so we’ll know they’re not all fanatics. Clayton and Archer are paired as good cop and bad cop examples of American policy; Clayton, a preacher’s son (so he understands religious extremism), even has a Ph.D. in Arabic studies. (The point seems to be that you have to be an expert to have any sympathy.) Samir and his CIA handler, played by Jeff Daniels, argue about how much the good guys can act like the bad guys. Street scenes in Yemen are shot with a jerky handheld camera, in order to emphasize the exotic, gritty daily routine that lies under fundamentalist Islam. Omar and Samir even play chess, first in a Yemeni prison and later at their headquarters in France, in case you didn’t quite get that global politics is like chess. You know, sometimes you have to sacrifice your pawns.
That overbearing explication is almost redeemed by the last 45 minutes. Once the final chain of events is set in motion, Traitor moves quickly and cleanly. The complexities and ambiguities that you’ve been beat over the head with for the previous hour are built into the plot, not spelled out. Even better, the twin prongs of the plot’s climax—the chase for Samir and the countdown to the attack he’s helped arrange—are neatly synchronized and tensely choreographed. The action comes first. Which is a good thing, when the ideas you’ve got are as stale as the ones in Traitor.