The War Within (Joseph Castelo). 90 minutes. Opens Friday (July 7) at the Kennedy Commons. For times, see page 106. Rating: NNN Rating: NNNNN
It's both safe and convenient to think of suicide bombers as faceless monsters, so director Joseph Castelo is swimming upstream by taking a humanizing look at potential terrorist Hassan. Played by co-writer Ayad Akhtar (in his chilling feature film debut), Hassan has a crisis of conscience when he visits his old friend Sayeed ( Firdous Bamji ) and his secular Muslim family in New Jersey in the course of undertaking his deadly mission.
It's a provocative film, but the filmmakers are obviously trying too hard to balance all sides. Some plot points will enrage many in the audience or are open to misinterpretation. Nevertheless, the moments that work have undeniable power.
Particularly strong are the scenes between Hassan and Sayeed's impressionable young son, who's fascinated by the visitor and takes not only his words, but also his devotion to the Koran to heart. When Hassan and Sayeed discuss the political situation with their neighbours (notable among them Ajay Naidu ), it's as disturbing as the controversial "orchard discussion" in Spielberg's Munich.
Comparisons to Oscar nominee Paradise Now are inevitable and fitting - and both feature some standout performances. But Castelo excels in fleshing out the characters, showing that inner turmoil is not exclusive to Hassan and ensuring that the circular ending will leave audiences as conflicted as the characters.