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Joseph Castelo
© Magnolia Pictures
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

By C. Antonio Romero

SAN FRANCISCO, 14 NOVEMBER 2005—It seems likely enough that Joseph Castelo's The War Within will find only small audiences in the United States. Castelo's project— to tell the story of an Islamic extremist suicide bomber come to attack New York—was bound to be provocative, and an intellectual and emotional reach for many Americans. And yet, he claims, "In a world overwhelmed with fear, in a world wounded by horrific terrorist attacks, I can’t imagine making any other film.  Our fears are real. But they are compounded by a willful denial—on all sides of the fray—of understanding." And it is the gulf between these sides that Castelo hopes to bridge—to create an empathetic (if, pointedly,not sympathetic) portrait that could make the extremist's anger comprehensible.

After apparently innocent Pakistani engineering student Hassan (Ayad Akhtar, who co-wrote) is abducted in Paris and is imprisoned and tortured in Pakistan, he is radicalized by his experiences and joins a plot to attack targets across Manhattan. When members of the cell are captured, the plot begins to come unraveled, and Hassan takes refuge with the family of his unwitting childhood friend Sayeed, now a reasonably assimilated family man living in New Jersey. There he waits for orders, and grapples with tension between affection for his friends and devotion to his mission, his cell leader Khalid, and the dwindling remnants of the plot.

Ayad Akhtar as Hassan in The War Within
© Magnolia Pictures
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

It would be hard to find fault with the film, in most respects, on the level of craft. The plot is plausible enough, and offers a well-founded critique of some of America's tactics in the War on Terror.  The practice of extraordinary rendition—in which Americans snatch suspected extremists and extradite them to countries where they can be tortured—may sometimes yield useful intelligence, but hardly makes America many friends at this point.

The same could be said of America's conduct in Iraq , and of past American alliances of convenience with despots in the Islamic world and elsewhere. The performances are solid, dialogue (in Urdu, English and, intermittently, French) generally rings true, the film is interestingly shot. It satisfies, as far as it goes, and it does go pretty far.

But, if judged on whether it achieves its primary objective of delivering real insight into the extremists' motivation, the film cannot be considered an unqualified success. Costelo and Akhtar ground Hassan's radicalism in his personal suffering; the religious and political justifications, seem, if not gratuitous, at least secondary. Thus, the story puts us not much closer to understanding those who actually attacked America on September 11.

Firdous Bamji as Sayeed in The War Within
© Magnolia Pictures
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The conflict surely runs deeper than whatever fresh grievances America may be creating among Muslims today. Mohammed Atta, however he was wounded by his encounter with the West in Hamburg, was never personally imprisoned or tortured, never had members of his family arrested or killed by Americans.

The Afghans and other mujahideen who fought in Afghanistan may have been enraged by being abandoned after the Cold War, but if their cause did not run deeper, would they have flocked to fight the Russians in the first place? In the end, are we much closer to understanding how relatively privileged and sophisticated Muslims from countries like Egypt, facing better prospects than their countrymen or even many in their host countries in the West, are driven to take up the way of the jihadi?

Without buying into talk about "clashes of civilizations", the conflict that brought us to the beginning of the War on Terror is deeper than this film manages to delve, and thus, in the end, it is a solid and deserving effort that nonetheless disappoints.

Three stars


C. Antonio Romero is the Nouveau editor of

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