THE WAR WITHIN charts a different sort of territory in its examination of the psychology of suicide bombers. Its protagonist, Hassan(co-writer Ayad Akhtar), isn’t a refugee, isn’t psychotic, isn’t an extremist of any kind, and far from living a hopeless existence with no future and a murky past, he’s cosmopolitan, well-educated, and more western than eastern in his world view. At least at first.
The film begins with the kidnapping of Pakistani national Hassan while a student in Paris by an unnamed western government. He’s tortured for information that he doesn’t have and though he initially rebuffs the radical Islam offered as consolation by a fellow prisoner, the experience turns him from apolitical to fundamentalist both religiously and politically. Determined to strike a blow for his new-found set of ideals, he sneaks into the United States as part of a terror plot designed to disrupt key travel hubs. While waiting for the word that the day to blow himself up has come, he hides out with a childhood friend from Pakistan who is now living the American dream. Unaware of why Hassan is there, they pick up the friendship where they left off when emigration separated them, and Hassan is confronted by the disconnect of a happy and assimilated Muslim family being accepted by their community and the rage he feels for what happened to him and to Muslims elsewhere in the world.
Akhtar gives a powerful performance as a man desperately searching for something certain to hold onto in a world gone mad around him. He is finely nuanced and intensely human making the madness of his actions all the more disconcerting. It’s that performance and the interaction with his friend’s family that drives the film. His full heart in wanting to teach the son of the family the proper way to pray while filling his head and his heart with a hatred and suspicion of his non-Muslim neighbors is so gently insidious that it is as difficult to watch as the torture that Hassan endured earlier in the film.
It’s a damning indictment that gets to the heart of how government policies, far from protecting its citizens from violence, are actively breeding it. And yet, almost miraculously, it’s far from strident. Instead, it’s measured, precise, and because it’s told from Hassan’s point of view, becomes an engrossing character study that is as heartbreaking as it is terrifying. Hushed tones, somber colors, and a pervading sense of tragedy mark it as a work of assured filmmaking, as well. And while it never comes close to subscribing to Hassan’s actions, nor to excusing his motives, it does lay out in stark detail exactly what drove him to it. And for that reason THE WAR WITHIN is essential viewing, because without understanding what drives a sane man to blow himself up and take innocent bystanders with him, there is little chance of getting through to him before he pushes the button.