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The Lens; Explosive content

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 5, 2008 - The title of the film "Traitor" is loaded and unequivocal - so much so that the film's quality might be suspect. However, it offers as much thought and subtlety as action and suspense.

A fine actor, Don Cheadle ("Hotel Rwanda," "Crash"), plays the leading role of Samir Horn. The story opens with Samir as a boy in Sudan studying the Koran with his father. The boy also learns chess, invented by the Persian conquerors of Northern India to teach military tactics. From the balcony of the family home, young Samir watches his father die as his car explodes from a bomb.

The grown-up Samir at first seems to be a soldier of fortune selling explosives to the highest bidder. He ends up in a prison in Yemen, where Omar (the excellent Said Tagunaoui) befriends him. Over games of chess - which Samir loses because he will not sacrifice his pawns - they discuss Islam, and Omar recruits him to be a terrorist. Or so it seems.

The action proceeds to Marseilles, London, Washington, Chicago and other locations as we learn more about Samir's past. Guy Pearce plays an FBI agent with a Ph.D. in Arabic studies. A minister's son, he is the only person capable of understanding Samir's deep religious convictions. Jeff Daniels plays another agent. Loyalty, trust, religious devotion, political commitment - what do they all mean? "Traitor" asks all the right questions without giving simple answers.

From a story by Steve Martin (yes, the Steve Martin), Jeffrey Nachmanoff wrote and directed a thinking person's thriller. Who is Samir, really, and how can he navigate some very dangerous waters? How will he put his fervent faith into action - or will he? The film leaves us in some doubt until the very last scene.

Thankfully, "Traitor" does not make cardboard villains of the terrorists or cardboard heroes of the FBI agents. Samir is the memorable character, however, the one who calls all of us to conscience.

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