The War Within
At the beginning of The War Within, an apolitical, Western-educated engineer named Hassan is walking down a Paris sidewalk when four hulking Americans grab him, toss him in an SUV, and stick a hypodermic in his forearm. Hassan awakes in a dark Afghan prison, where local American surrogates use a welding torch to get information about his Islamic-radical brother back in Pakistan. As ugly scars develop on Hassanís arms and back, itís easy for his cellmate to recruit him as a terrorist.
Released from prison and smuggled into America on a container ship, Hassan awaits his chance to set off a bomb in Manhattan. But the operation gets delayed, and he has to spend weeks upon weeks with his unsuspecting childhood friend Sayeed, a Pakistani now enjoying the middle-class, multicultural life in suburban New Jersey. Hassan even gets a crush on his friendís sister Duri.
So what will he doógo through with his suicide-bomber plan, or will these encounters with friendly, reasonable Americans change his mind? Itís a measure of this political thrillerís success that you donít know until the final minutes. Director Joseph Castelo and actor Ayad Akhtar (Hassan) co-wrote the script with producer Tom Glynn, and they manage to put you inside Hassanís head where this war takes place. Akhtar pulls off the difficult feat of portraying someone who has dark secrets heís aching to tell but canít. Firdous Bamji and Nandana Sen are so outgoing and charismatic as the Americanized Muslims Sayeed and Duri that they create an effective counterweight to the torture scenes.
Castelo, Akhtar, and Glynn are all Americans who recently graduated from the Columbia University Film Program and co-founded Coalition Films. Their first feature is visually undistinguished and lacks much needed humor, but it builds its suspense to a fever pitch and offers a penetrating psychological portrait of the new centuryís most baffling character: the suicide bomber.
And for daring to suggest that such a bomber might be a thoughtful, normal person rather than a raving maniac, The War Within will surely be falsely accused of condoning terrorismófor the potential victims in this story are every bit as human as the potential bomber, the effects of terrorism every bit as awful as the effects of torture. If there is a ďwar outsideĒ between secular capitalists and religious fundamentalists, Castelo and Akhtar display an all-too-rare courage and integrity in allowing each side to make its best argument. By distilling that war to the debate inside Hassanís head they have fashioned a fiction as thrilling as it is disturbing.