Like its star, Traitor is subdued but compelling
“Traitor” is a sort of coming out role for Don Cheadle. He received an Oscar nomination for his lead performance in the excellent but criminally unseen “Hotel Rwanda.” But as a devout Muslim who may be working for the terrorist group El Nathir as a detonations expert, or as a US Special Operations agent, Cheadle gets his most mainstream opportunity at a starring role.
He also tinkered with bombs in the much less serious “Ocean’s 11” and its two sequels, and his supporting roles in “Traffic,” “The Family Man,” and “Crash” contributed significantly to those films’ excellence.
As an actor, Cheadle wears an indelible look of inner conflict on his face. This ability suits him well in “Traitor” because we need to believe his intentions as a Sudanese-born American with ties to an extremist group are sincere, even when a bombing he helps plan unintentionally kills eight Americans.
Throughout the film, as layers of his connections to both sides are delicately revealed, Cheadle’s thoughtful performance as Samir Horn is so convincing that we care more about him as an individual than for either of the sides for whom he may have been working.
The tautly-written script by Jeffrey Nachmanoff (who also directs) and Steve Martin (who knew?) covers a lot of geography and can get a little confusing bouncing about Sudan, Yemen, Washington D.C., Madrid, London, Chicago, and Marseilles.
The plot plays out like a thinking person’s “Bourne Identity,” rarely relying on car chases or explosions but building tension nonetheless through a series of chilling scenarios where Cheadle’s character is forced to make decisions that prove his loyalties. The climax of the film involves the orchestration of 50 suicide attacks on American soil that impressively does not feel manipulative in any way.
Cheadle is well supported by an excellent cast that includes Guy Pierce and Neal McDonough as persistent FBI agents, Jeff Daniels as a CIA handler, and most effectively Said Taghmaoui as extremist insider Omar who bonds with Samir and is as sensitive and clear minded as any terrorist you will likely see portrayed on film.
At just under 2 hours, “Traitor” feels a little long-perhaps because we are used to more action in this type of film. Still, “Traitor” ultimately is filled with more surprises and originality than last year’s much ballyhooed “Michael Clayton.” And Don Cheadle deserves much of the credit.
Rated PG-13 for intense violent sequences, thematic material and brief language.