The War Within

I caught Joseph Castelo’s fascinating DV feature, The War Within (IMDB), on Friday night but haven’t been able to develop a satisfying interpretation of it. At the very least, the film is compelling because of its “sympathetic” treatment of someone who would normally be dismissed as a terrorist. Through this sympathetic treatment, Castelo attempts to understand how someone could be driven to this kind of violence (note that I’m treading carefully here in my use of terminology because I cannot write this review without thinking about the thousands of civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq who have been killed due to the war on terror).

War focuses on Hassan (played by co-screenwriter Ayad Akhtar), a mild-mannered engineering student wrongfully arrested in Paris under suspicion of terrorism. He is hauled off to Pakistan, where he is imprisoned, tortured, and interrogated. Notably, these shots are filmed in almost total darkness, somewhat underplaying the violence by making it difficult to see. But after one particlarly violent beating, a fellow priosner gives Hassan a weathered copy of the Qur’an, and by the time that he leaves prison, Hassan is radicalized. Some reviewers have commented that we are offered insufficent motivation for Hassan’s radicalization, but these elliptical images generally worked, although they also have the effect of making Hassan’s motivation purely, or at least primarily, subjective, which works against his outrage at the broader effects of the war on terror.

After his release, Hassan enters the US with plans to meet up with a terrorist cell based in suburban New York. Specifically, Hassan plans to blow up Grand Central Terminal as a suicide bomber. His plans are complicated by his decision to live with childhood friend, Sayeed (Firdous Bamji), now a successful middle-class doctor, and Sayeed’s family. In particular, Hassan becomes drawn to Sayeed’s sister (Nandana Sen), who has become almost completely Westernized, to the point that she dates American men, at least at the beginning of the film. Sayeed’s middle-class complacency is simultaneously attractive and repulsive to Hassan, thus setting off “the war within” of the film’s title (Teresa Wiltz’s Washington Post review gets at these complications nicely).

I won’t go into specifics about how Hassan resolves his personal dilemma, but I will say that the film uses the conventions of the thriller in an effective, thoughtful way. The film did have a tendency to rely on cliched characterizations of various positions on terrorism, and Hassan’s relationship with Duri had the potential to simplify Hassan’s crisis of conscience a bit too much. Worth noting: Lisa Rinzler’s DV cinematography generally served the narrative well. Hassan’s flashbacks to the Pakistani prison contrasted effectively with the brightly-lit suburban streets of Sayeed’s affluent New Jersey neighborhood. More importantly, the footage of Hassan as he walks through Times Square, with its brightly lit symbols of global capitalism and shallow entertainment, seemed to capture his subjectivity very effectively. During many of these scenes, in which a solitary Hassan quietly wanders the streets of New York City–and later Grand Central Station itself–the faces of other pedestrians went out of focus. During these sequences, I was reminded of Don DeLillo’s fascinating essay, “In the Ruins of the Future,” in which DeLillo argues that the advantage of the terrorist is his ability not to see these faces (“this is his edge, that he does not see her”). I’m not sure that I agree with DeLillo anymore, and for reasons I can’t describe precisely without giving away the film, I believe The War Within complicates DeLillo’s arguments. The film is certainly worth seeing. As I mentioned earlier, I’m not quite sure how to respond to the film, so if anyone else has seen it, I’d love to know your response to it.

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