Most of Samir Horn's past is classified. FBI Agent Roy Clayton knows this because he's trying like mad to track the guy down.
As a child, Samir saw his Sudanese Muslim father obliterated by a car bomb. He and his American mother moved from Africa to Chicago, where Samir earned high test scores but got kicked out of school for fighting. He joined the military and became an explosives expert. After a tour of duty in the Middle East, Samir stayed on and "got in touch with his Muslim roots." Then he disappeared.
Now Agent Clayton and his U.S. government colleagues aren't sure whose side Samir is on. It certainly seems he's gone rogue and that he's supplying terrorists with explosives and the best U.S. military training on how to use them. When a U.S. consulate bombing in Marseilles is traced back to Samir, the FBI stops giving him the benefit of the doubt. Trouble is, Samir's extensive training makes him awfully hard to find. When the government agents do finally find him, it's only because Samir wants them to.
He's got a big surprise waiting for them.
[Note: To explore this film's spiritual, political and moral themes, the following sections contain plot spoilers.]
In a prison camp, Samir risks his life trying to give another prisoner food. Samir's mother and a former girlfriend are loyal to him even when given many reasons to doubt his character.
OK, here's where the spoilers start: Samir is spying for the U.S. by immersing himself in a Muslim terrorist cell. His placement there requires him to at least seem to advance the terrorist cause on both American and foreign soil. His dubious occupation stretches him in ways he never imagined, but he never surrenders his desire to protect life. He is adamantly opposed to shedding innocent blood, and he repeatedly risks everything to avoid doing so any more than he feels he has to.
He finds ways to make it appear as if he is killing American civilians though that is not actually what's happening (for the most part). When he's told by his government handler that some collateral damage is necessary to accomplish their mission, Samir bristles. And when it happens, he's horrified. In the end, he sacrifices his career to prevent becoming party to the loss of more innocent lives.
Traitor at times plays like a primer on Islam, repeating and defining words and phrases commonly used by adherents. Allahu akbar ("God is great" or "God is the greatest"), shahid ("witness" or "martyr") and fatwa (a religious pronouncement or judgment) are among the terms audiences learn over the course of this film. Viewers are given a window into the lives of religious-minded terrorists who hate their enemies so much that they will sacrifice their own lives if only they can also kill "infidels" in the process.
Muslim radicals greet one another in the name of Allah, give glory to Allah for a successful attack on their enemies and discuss the benefits of a life fully submitted to Allah's will. They pray aloud before committing suicide bombings, and they rejoice when American death tolls rise.
As it turns out, this broad brushstroke picture of militant Islam is presented only to provide a foil for Samir's commitment to the Muslim faith and his belief that that commitment means he must protect life, not destroy it. The film's true purpose, then, is to make the statement that both good and bad actions can come from one's personal interpretations of teachings from any given religion.
Samir is devoted to his Islamic faith and maintains that those who would commit terrorist atrocities are not true Muslims, but instead have "hijacked" Islam for evil purposes. Similarly, Agent Clayton talks about the "Christian" roots of the Ku Klux Klan, then states that when crosses were burned on the lawns of townsfolk, his father, a preacher, would rally his congregation to extinguish them.
When Samir's handler tells him to "remember who you answer to," Samir shoots right back with, "I answer to God. We all do." Later, putting a gun to Clayton's head, he forces the man to recite the Lord's Prayer.
Muslim men discuss (without going into graphic detail) the temptation presented by women in their lives. But when one of them thinks Samir has given into sexual temptation, he excuses his actions: "We're only men, Samir." He goes on to say that overcoming temptation and living rightly is "the great Jihad."
FBI agents discussing terrorism wonder aloud at a culture in which "you blow yourself up to get laid," referring to the promise made to young Muslims that if they die as Shahid, they will be rewarded with virgins in paradise.
Traitor is not nearly as violent as a film about terrorists and suicide bombers could be. Still, it has its fair share both of explosions and brutal beatings. We watch as a young Samir watches his father die in a car explosion. We hear that Samir put some of his high school classmates in the hospital after a brawl. In prison in Yemen, Samir is attacked by a gang of fellow prisoners. He puts up a vicious fight, head-butting his attackers and breaking one man's fingers. He's eventually knocked to the ground and repeatedly kicked.
For making a small mistake while in the terrorist cell, a young man is thrown from a highway overpass into oncoming traffic below. (We see a police photo of his cleaned up corpse.) In an ambush, police fire machine guns through the windows of a building, killing terrorists inside. Guards shoot and kill prisoners to prevent them from escaping. There are a handful of pistol whippings and point-blank shootings. After he's shot in the back, a man is seen lying in a pool of blood. Another plants explosives in a building and runs. We see the explosion and hear that eight people have been killed.
Muslims—both men and women—prepare to die as suicide bombers. We see three or four of them accomplish their goal. In one particularly sobering and almost eerie instance we watch as a plot unfolds to simultaneously blow up 30 busses in the U.S. Onscreen, one bus erupts in a ball of fire.
Crude or Profane Language
About a dozen s-words and one f-word are accompanied by a half-dozen milder profanities ("h---," "a--") and a handful of crude words such as "p---." God's name is carelessly interjected once.
Drug and Alcohol Content
As part of the terrorist cell, Samir complains when the leader and Samir's friend drink wine with dinner, even though Muslim law prohibits it. The leader, Fareed, excuses their actions, saying they must become like their enemies in order to defeat them. Samir argues that that's not what the Islamic law of Taqiyya means.
Cigarettes put in numerous appearances.
Other Negative Elements
Collateral damage obviously disturbs and distresses Samir more than it does his handler. But even Samir ultimately weighs the many against the one and decides to sacrifice the one (or maybe even a few more than one) for the sake of pushing back the terrorist threat.
One of the FBI agents plays fast and loose with the law. Once, preparing to use his fists to get Samir to talk, he cracks wise: "I must have forgotten my Bill of Rights at home."
In its trailers, Traitor comes off as a straight psychological thriller that asks audiences to spend most of the film trying to guess whose side the main character is on. But by the time the credits roll, you realize that this movie is about way more than just a cat-and-mouse spy game.
Traitor means to make its audiences think in between bites of popcorn—and not just about whodunit. Leading man Don Cheadle says so himself in an interview with the San Jose Mercury News: "Look, this movie isn't like Paradise Now. We don't go into the minds of suicide bombers and try to understand their psychology. But it is a little deeper than, I think, The Bourne Identity. We're dealing with something that is actually out there. Hopefully, while it's entertaining you, you're thinking about stuff."
So exactly what kind of stuff does it want you to think about?
We get a small clue from Cheadle's response to what it was like to play a Muslim: "Once I started reading up on the faith and reading the Quran, it's amazing how similar the monotheistic religions really are. Islam, Judaism, Christianity; they all come from the same root and from the same place, the same small area of land."
Traitor doesn't directly teach that all the major religions of the world are equal, but Cheadle—and many moviegoers—will be forgiven for thinking it's headed that direction. What it really wants to do is illustrate the truth that bad apples don't have to always spoil the whole barrel. All Muslims don't despise Christians just because some do. And all white Christians don't claim racial superiority just because the KKK did (does).
Still, movies have trained us to see individuals as representing groups. A gentle and kind prostitute in Pretty Woman, for instance, helps to soften people's opinions of prostitutes in general. And an endearingly goofy Jack Sparrow in The Pirates of the Caribbean movies makes us feel, at least on some level, that pirates might not be so bad after all—maybe they're just misunderstood softies. And because Samir takes his heroic steps not so much for his country but because of his faith, his faith is put in a very favorable light.
That brings us back to Cheadle's Islamic research which led him to think of that religion as equivalent to Judaism and Christianity. Just because every religion has followers who honor it and every religion has followers who pervert it doesn't mean that every religion espouses the same spiritual values. And it certainly doesn't mean that every religion points to the true God.
Samir is an honorable man in this story. And he is a Muslim. He serves his country well and he saves the lives of hundreds, if not thousands of innocent people. And he worships the Islamic Allah. But the one does not necessarily support the other. Traitor won't show you that.
A postscript: In Focus on the Family founder James Dobson's October 2006 newsletter, he wrote about the "burgeoning threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism." He said, "Let me make one thing clear as a place to begin. All evidence indicates that the vast majority of Muslims wish us no harm, and are decent and peaceful people. Unfortunately, millions of extremists do exist among them, and they hate us with a vengeance. Remember that a small percentage of a very big number is a very big number. There are, according to several estimates, more than 1.2 billion Muslims in the world, representing almost a fifth of earth's population. Some estimates indicate that from 10 to 15 percent of them hold to the view that infidels ("non-believers" in the Islamic faith) deserve to die. That would mean 120 to 180 million people are committed to our destruction."
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Don Cheadle as Samir Horn; Guy Pearce as Roy Clayton; Said Taghmaoui as Omar; Neal McDonough as Max Archer; Aly Khan as Fareed; Archie Panjabi as Chandra Dawkin; Raad Rawi as Nathir
Jeffrey Nachmanoff ( )
Lindy KefferSteven Isaac