BY CHRIS SZABLA
Pity poor Jeff Daniels. His has the sort of earnest, middle American profile that makes him appear destined to play the tragic antihero. In 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, the viewer weeps for his plunge from bourgeois-bohemian bliss to bachelor life boredom – cooking for his skeptical children, being tempted my manipulative students, even feigning excitement over a visit to SUNY-Binghampton.
In Traitor, an intelligent new spy drama based on a concept by Steve Martin (of all people), Daniels gets about thirty seconds of screentime – briefly introduced as a faceless Washington bureaucrat, we see him enduring a DC briefing, waiting in a London rainstorm, and swearing at a malfunctioning LA vending machine before he meets a grizzly end in a Chicago parking lot. This alone tells you much about Traitor, which flits as effortlessly from city to city as it does from corpse to corpse.
However small his role, though, Daniels’ character is at least one ingredient making the case that Traitor is not your average national-security thriller. His conversations with Don Cheadle’s character, Samir Horn – a Sudan-born ex-US military man who has ostensibly joined up with a global terror network – suggest that Horn has not necessarily changed sides, but is working toward some Grander Purpose. Daniels’ and Horn’s sketchy plans somehow involve engineering terror attacks designed to make both sides feel as if they are at war – while scrupulously aiming to prevent any casualties. It is one of the movie’s most disconcerting loose ends, all the more so because it seems so intimately connected to the emphasis on ambiguous loyalties that runs throughout the film.
For Traitor fits clearly into the parade of recent titles – Syriana, Munich, the Bourne franchise – that try to emphasize the gray nature of both belonging and decisionmaking in the supposedly black-and-white Age of Terror. Horn isn’t the only one with an identity crisis – we also witness American G-men sparring over interrogation tactics and ex-mujahideen deliberating over what might constitute “the greater jihad.” Get ready to brush up on your Qu’ran and hadith – for arguments about the interpretation of, for example, taqiya, or the need to disguise oneself from one’s enemy. The debate on the Americans’ side may be a bit more familiar. “I must have left my Bill of Rights at home,” quips one FBI agent as he slaps Cheadle around a Yemeni dungeon.
For all Traitor‘s attempts at subtlety and cleverness, however, some aspects come off as more than a bit gimmicky. Partially, this is because Cheadle seems caught in his own, actorial ambiguity. In many scenes he displays the same set of convincing emotions that he evinced in 2004’s heart-wrenching Hotel Rwanda. But Traitor’s entirely-too-perfect resolution makes Samir Horn ultimately seem a bit more like the sangfroid wiseass Cheadle played in Ocean’s 11, 12, and 13. By the end of the film, the intriguing question implied by its title – to which side is Horn a traitor? could it be both? – appears to have been facilely overcome. Horn manages to skate by on his own ingenuity.
This shifts the burden for tragedy back to its master – Daniels. “If we stop now, [innocent civilians] will have died in vain,” his character tells Horn – urging him to continue with their mysterious project. By the film’s last scene, the viewer wonders if anyone’s death will ever not be in vain. What happened to the dead cannot be erased, Horn insists. As the Daniels character’s own death illustrates, the quest to bring meaning to death may succeed only in reproducing itself, time and time again.