Hear a just cause, O LORD; attend to my cry;
give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit.
From you let my vindication come;
let your eyes see the right.
If you try my heart, if you visit me by night,
if you test me, you will find no wickedness in me;
my mouth does not transgress.
As for what others do, by the word of your lips
I have avoided the ways of the violent.
My steps have held fast to your paths;
my feet have not slipped.
Guard me as the apple of the eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings,
from the wicked who despoil me,
my deadly enemies who surround me.
They close their hearts to pity;
with their mouths they speak arrogantly.
They track me down; now they surround me;
they set their eyes to cast me to the ground.
They are like a lion eager to tear,
like a young lion lurking in ambush.
As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness;
when I awake I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness.
Psalm 17:1-5, 8-12, 15
FBI agents Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Max Archer (Neal McDonough) are engaged in a search for an explosives expert terrorist, one that finds them dashing off from their Washington, D.C headquarters to such places as Yemen, Marseilles, London, Toronto, Chicago and Los Angeles. They are in pursuit of former U.S. Special Operations officer Samir Horn (Don Cheadle), who is present at a number of terrorist bombings, including that of a U.S. government building in France.
The film provides the sparest of details about Samir, other than that as a boy in his native Aden he witnessed the murder of his father by car bombing, that he is a devout Muslim, and that he enjoys playing chess. His expertise in electronics and explosives was garnered when he served in the U.S. military, his family having moved to the U.S. following the death of his father. He first meets the FBI agents when he is caught dealing with a terrorist cell in Yemen and imprisoned. Max Archer plays bad cop, hitting Samir, after which Roy Clayton seeks to restrain him. Omar, a terrorist captured along with Samir, overcomes his suspicion that Samir had sold them out and befriends him. When Omar’s companions break them out of prison in a daring raid, Omar brings his new friend along. As Samir teaches fellow terrorists how to use bombs, Omar’s belief in Samir grows stronger.
Although Samir has a lover back in Chicago whom he contacts, journalist Chandra Dawkin (Archie Panjabi), the story focuses far more on the growing friendship between Samir and Omar. Both of them are Muslims who reveal to each other that they dream in English; one uses his faith to rationalize killing innocents, and the other is obviously bothered by the deaths his bombs cause. Why the latter is the case we find out only well into the film, when we see Samir meeting with CIA operative Carter (Jeff Daniels). We are never filled in on the details, but the twists and turns of the plot leave us little time to think about this until after we leave the theater—and unlike most espionage/thriller films, this one does leave the viewer thinking.
Written and directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff from a story by him and executive producer Steve Martin (yes, the Steve Martin), the film provides us with a fascinating and complex character who is a devotee of Islam. Although we are taken into the inner workings of an Al Qaeda-like terrorist cell, we also see that there is another side to Islam as well. Thus the filmmakers invite us to abandon the current anti-Muslim prejudice that would tar all Muslims with the terrorist brush. It also confronts us with the difficult question of how to fight terrorism, when one of Samir’s bombs inadvertently kills several innocents, and he expresses his remorse to Carter, and the latter replies, “This is a war. You do what it takes to win. We’re the good guys.”
For reflection/Discussion There are numerous spoilers in the following.
1) Were you left wondering about Samir’s spiritual and moral development between the murder of his father and the first time we see him as an adult? Note how brief the childhood scene is, true to the sparseness of the entire film in regards to details of Samir’s character.
2) What do we learn from FBI agent Roy Clayton’s remark to his partner, “Where I grew up the Klan burned crosses. Seems like Christianity has more than one face” ? What does this reveal about his view of Islam? How do those who condemn Islam as being a violent, terrorist religion overlook the darker side (or “face” ) of Christianity? Of what in the history of the Christian church are you ashamed?
3) What do you think of the remark of the terrorist, “America has missiles and bombs, but God is on our side” ? Have we used this to justify some of our actions? The Crusades; the elimination of heretics by the Inquisition or the judicial killing of women suspected of witchcraft at Salem; or the Vietnam War (remember Bob Dylan’s song from that era, “With God On Our Side” ?)
4) What did you think when Samir quotes to Omar the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.? Did you begin to suspect at this point that there was more behind his actions than simple hatred for the West? What do you think of King’s observation: how is our life justified by what we are willing to die for? Note that King did not say, “What we are willing to kill for.” Gandhi dealt with the latter many times in his life, saying that he is willing to die for the freedom of India, but never to kill for it.
5) How does Samir’s remorse about the collateral deaths from his bombing at last reveal his true character? Note that even when Carter assumes part of the blame, what Samir says. How does this show his intellectual honesty and courage, as well as compassion?
6) When agents Roy and Max talk on the plane, what do we learn about Roy’s religious past? How are he and Samir in some ways very similar?
7) Chandra refuses to believe the FBI agents claim that Samir is a terrorist. What obviously is her view of Islam when she says, “His faith was a source of his strength, not this (pointing to the photos of carnage from a bomb blast)” ?
8) Samir shares his doubts with Carter, asking “How far are you willing to take this,” as he declares that they “have blood on (their) hands.” What do you think of Carter’s reply, “” This is a war. You do what it takes to win. We’re the good guys.” How is this the justification our government is using for defending the torture of captured terrorist suspects? Do you believe that the end justify the means, or that Gandhi was right when he said that less than just means will always result in corrupt ends? What does Samir apparently think when he replies to Carter, “You know whom you sound like?” Who earlier in the film expressed a similar view, bringing God into the picture?
9) In his remorse Samir says, “You know the Koran says that if you kill an innocent man, you have killed all of mankind.” Compare this with the terrorist’s in an earlier scene using their faith to justify their killings. Were you surprised that the FBI agent offered a counter quotation from the Koran, “It also says that if you save a man, you have saved all mankind” ? How is this similar to the inscription that “Schindler’s Jews” engraved inside the ring that they gave him in gratitude for saving their lives in the Nazi concentration camp? What does this suggest about the kinship of Islam and Judaism?
10) What ritual greeting
does Samir and Roy use when they part? How does this reveal the basic nature of Islam and Christianity? The Psalm quotation was written by a Jew, but how could it be offered as a prayer by Samir as well? What have you learned from this film, probably regarded by many as just another summer thriller?