Assuming our intelligence can be trusted, the way Traitor came to pass is this: Steve Martin, while in the throes of Bringing Down the House, had an idea for an espionage thriller. (In retrospect, it’s easy to imagine how during that particular production his mind might have wandered.) It involved an undercover U.S. military operative deep into war-on-terror territory in the Middle East, possibly at the center of a murderous international conspiracy, and on the run from terrorists and feds alike. And it ended with a major twist.
Martin told his idea to a producer, who is said to have liked it but then hired Jeffrey Nachmanoff—co-writer of that glum, dumb disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow—to assemble a screenplay and direct. Still, Nachmanoff had a twist of his own to offer, which was that the protagonist should be a Muslim American, deeply conflicted about the moral imperatives of his actions. Then Don Cheadle read the script and wanted in.
And now that Traitor is done, it seems like puffing this package up with commercial viability also was a way of watering its premise down. The clever maneuver of the ending remains, and the rest of the movie feels ultimately too much like a theoretical exercise for setting up that debatably surprising twist.
Cheadle plays the undercover operative, a Sudan-born Muslim and American citizen named Samir Horn, who speaks several languages but dreams in English, he says, and counts both mujahedeen and the U.S. Army among his professional affiliations. But, as he puts it, the only authority to whom he answers is Allah.
The movie begins with Samir selling explosives to jihadists in Yemen, then getting arrested with them and accused of being a traitor who sold them out. It may or may not help that two American FBI agents seem to consider Samir a person of interest for something serious, and accordingly travel halfway across the world to interrogate him in the Yemeni prison.
Agent Clayton, as played by Guy Pearce, has a muted swagger, a quiet-cowboy Southern accent and an air of righteously healthy skepticism. He’s a Baptist minister’s son, we come to learn, with a Ph.D. in Arabic studies. Agent Archer is played by Neal McDonough, an alumnus of the Where Have I Seen That Guy? School of Dramatic Television Acting, with a reflexively bigoted, less-nuanced approach to the job that leaves him vulnerable to smug, snappy lectures from his more judicious partner. Not exactly any surprises here so far, genrewise.
The agents offer Samir his freedom in exchange for vital information, but he’d rather stay put, standing up to a jailyard thug and playing chess with a militant fellow inmate named Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui), who eventually includes him in a prison break and in a terrorist network with plans for havoc in Europe and the United States.
Plots thicken, blood spills, Jeff Daniels surfaces as a shady CIA lifer, and all the major players find themselves embroiled in an imminent attack from dozens of sleeper terrorists. It becomes clear that when finally answering to his only authority, Samir will have much to answer for indeed.
So it’s a good thing Cheadle supplies the needed moral heft here, because Nachmanoff doesn’t have much else to offer. For all the talking they do about themselves, and reading aloud of dossiers and so on, the characters register only faintly—less like the multidimensional people Nachmanoff’s script pretends them to be than like placeholders in a topically gimmicky but ultimately simple procedural political thriller.
To its credit, the movie moves swiftly and purposefully enough to briefly distract from its own hackneyed conventionality. But disappointments and doubts can’t be held off for long.
Had Steve Martin taken the reins of Traitor himself, it might have evolved into a bravely bitter and affecting black comedy. But Martin played it safe by handing his concept over to the Hollywood machine. In this modern age of morally ambiguous entertainment, whether that amounts to a high crime will depend on how much treason the American public can tolerate.