War Within, The

Reviewed By Elaine Perrone
Posted 10/07/05 08:25:05

"Feeding the Black Wolf."
5 stars (Awesome)

Imparting a lesson to his grandchildren, it is said, a wise Cherokee tells them of a fierce battle raging inside him, and inside each of them – one he likens to a terrible struggle between two wolves. The black wolf, he explains, represents all things horrific: anger, hatred, fear, sorrow, regret, greed, self-pity, false pride, and lies. The other, a white wolf, stands for love, hope, happiness, generosity, peace, humility, compassion, empathy, and truth. Answering one child’s query as to which wolf wins, the grandfather replies, “The one you feed.”

Never attempting to provide justification or elicit sympathy for acts that are far beyond the realm of either, co-writers Joseph Castelo, Ayad Akhtar, and Tom Glynn nonetheless deliver a riveting, chilling, and empathic journey into the mind of a young man in the throes of an internal war, a man in crisis between his devotion to family and a religious fervor fueled by rage and the grief of loss that sets an unthinkable act of terrorism in motion.

When first we set eyes on Hassan (Akhtar, in his acting debut), a young Pakistani man, he is an engineering student living in Paris. Suspected of terrorist involvement, Hassan is captured by Western intelligence forces and whisked off to Karachi, where he is detained and tortured for three years in the interest of U.S. national security. (Implied, but never stated outright, is that the U.S. government, which publicly deplores torture as a means of gaining information, turns a blind eye when it is performed in other countries that permit it.)

Early on, Hassan’s cellmate Khalid (Charles Daniel Sandoval) tries to lure him into an Al-Qaeda-like group in the prison known as “The Brotherhood,” but Hassan continues to profess his innocence and rebuffs any idea of participating in terrorist activities. As the years pass, however, and Hassan’s mind becomes hardened and his body scarred by his own terrorization, he is provoked into action. Once outside prison, he embarks for the United States, stowed inside a cargo container, with the intention of joining Khalil’s sleeper cell in New York City, a group that has targeted a number of key points for demolition – among them, the Brooklyn Bridge, the N Train in Queens, and Pennsylvania Station and Columbus Circle in Manhattan. Hassan’s assignment: A suicide mission to bomb the majestic Grand Central Terminal.

Upon arriving in New York, Hassan reconnects with his old schoolmate Sayeed (Firdous Bamji), who invites his dear friend to stay with him and his family, a household that includes his wife Farida (Sarita Choudhury), his two children, and his sister Duri (Nandana Sen), with whom Hassan shares a powerful mutual attraction. Having no inkling of the real reason for Hassan’s arrival in New York, Sayeed understands only that his friend is looking for a job and helps him find work driving a taxi.

As the days pass, Hassan becomes more and more conflicted between what he sees as his religious destiny and his feelings for Sayeed and his family. When, on the day of the planned attacks, FBI agents converge, capturing all the cell members but Khalil and Hassan, Hassan is left to wrestle with his own personal wolves – his fate, and that of the world around him, finally, left in his own hands, heart, and mind.

Director Castelo and his DP Lisa Rinzler fill the screen with indelible images that run the gamut from horrific to heartbreaking to awesome. I won’t soon forget the picture of Hassan lovingly teaching a child to pray devoutly, at the same time he is diligently building bombs in the family’s basement. Or the one of Hassan and Duri whispering to each other, clearly, across the sound-traveling columns of the “mosque” of Grand Central Terminal. Or the excruciating trek across town from Times Square to that achingly beautiful edifice that Hassan envisions as both mosque and mausoleum.

Without sympathizing with, or excusing the actions of, anyone who would do harm, director Castelo makes clear his belief in the necessity and power of empathy. He observes, sagely, “Without an understanding [of what goes on in the mind of the enemy] informed by empathy, we are not manned to face the new world in which we have found ourselves.”

Screened at Seattle’s Landmark Seven Gables Theatre, October 5, 2005, Seattle International Film Festival Members’ Screening attended by Ayad Akhtar and Tom Glynn.

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