While the film appears at first to be complicating the definition of "traitor," it's not long before the potential meanings are reductive and literal.
I don't feel at home anywhere.
--Samir (Don Cheadle)
As a child, Samir Horn sees his father killed in a car bombing in Sudan. It's 1978, and the boy's sense of loss is amplified by a preceeding half-scene in which he plays chess with his dad, their faces mirrors of loving admiration. After the explosion, the camera closes on Samri's stunned expression, the light of the flames undulating, his nose bleeding not from any phsyical impact, but from the viseral shock.
This affecting image of deeply felt trauma cuts to Traitor's "present day" in Yemen. Now grown up to be Don Cheadle, Samir sells detonators to terrorists, and when they need instruction in their use, he provides that as well. His face now looks weary and impassive, his eyes passing no judgment on his clients except when they inevitably make the assumption that he cares what they're doing, or some earnest Western authority thinks he's a true believer. At such points, he can barely contain his contempt. " I sell to whoever can afford to buy," he tells FBI agents Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Max Archer (Neal McDonough), "including the U.S. government." Born in Sudan and schooled in the U.S., in particular, Chicago, Samir is a devout Muslim, as well as one of those especially intelligent and soft-spoken villains. Not for a minute believing the feds' clumsy good cop-bad cop routine, he observes to Clayton about his partner, "The only difference between you and him is that he knows he's an asshole."
That may or may not be the case, but it sets Clayton to visible thinking. Not only does he chew out Arhcher for handling their interrogation badly ("You get a suspect to talk by pushing his buttons, not by letting ihm push yours"), but he also imagines there's something more to their prisoner than meets the eye. The film fills in for the rest of us. Samir is tossed in a dusty desert jail with a Moroccan terrorist middleman, Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui, excellent again). Charismatic and wily, Omar also sees something different about the newbie, wondering aloud about his allegiance, leaving him to his own when the prison bully starts picking on him. A gesture of compassion and probity, not to mention some fighting expertise (owing to training for U.S. Special Forces, a bit of background revealed later), changes Omar's mind about Samir, whom he's soon taking into his confidence. "They're soldiers, not thinkers," he says of their fellow prisoners. As for Samir and Omar, they like to play chess.
Samir feels comfortable enough with is new firend to question the premise of suicide bombing: "I've been in a lot of battles," he asserts, "And I've always had a plan to come home." Martyrdom may thrill the doers and inspire other disaffected, desperate, or fervent "soldiers," but it doesn't make sense as a longterm strategy. While violence and destructioin make for sensational TV (and so, advance terrorism as a tactic), it doesn't imagine ways to improve the lots of those who remain -- including perpetually traumatized loved ones like Samir. Even as they debate -- mildly -- Samir is looking increasingly immersed in Omar's world, as if he's giving up his longtime agnosticism.
As this friendship evolves -- meaning that Omar invites Samir along during a jailbreak and then brings him along to conduct some explosives business with his cell in London -- the plot begins to resemble that of Showtime's two-season miniseries, Sleeper Cell, in which a quiet Muslim FBI agent (Michael Ealy) infiltrates charismatic Farik's (Oded Fehr) U.S.-based terrorist group (twice!). Indeed: Traitor, based on a story by Steve Martin (the Steve Martin) ends up explaining Samir's inexplicable change of heart by revealing that he is undercover for the U.S.
While the film appears at first to be complicating the definition of "traitor," it's not long before the potential meanings are reductive and literal. Samir looks like a traitor against his U.S. military training (and, perhaps, of his father's memory, though it's not entirely clear who his father was or why he was blown up -- or even if there was a reason), then he's questioning the misuse of "jihad" as a concept, to kill innocents. Eventually, he feels he betrays himself when his participation in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Nice leads to loss of life -- a result he's been promised by his U.S. handler, Carter (Jeff Daniels), would be avoided, via a cover story and staged crime scene.
Blood on his hands makes Samir even more tightly wound than he has been. Now he has to work through the question of innocence as well as betrayal, how calculation or mere passivity might be situated on a continuum of culpability. "They accuse us of destroying innocent lives," declares Omar during one of their discussions. "But they have used their weapons to kill many innocents on our own side." Such pronouncements pass for nuanced political argument in the film, which becomes increasingly formulaic. Samir's mission (to gain access to the mysterious terrorist leader Nathir [Raad Rawi]) is diluted by what needs to be done to preserve his cover (commit mayhem). As the dogged Clayton tracks him, Samir's comparative subtlety raises questions about the U.S. official attitude (upright Clayton proves predictably ignorant regarding details of Islam, a characterization that indicates his "side" will never break through or understand the so-called "enemy").
Perhaps most galling, Samir's supposedly complex relationships to Islam and to the "innocents" in the States are embodied by his girlfriend Chandra (Archie Panjabi, who has precious little to do here except look worried and protest her man's innocence). As both he and Clayton make efforts to contact her, Chandra is called on to carry considerable emotional and moral weight, a burden premised on her status as cliché (the intuitive and intelligent woman who knows more than the bureaucracy can ever know).
While Traitor makes the point that both jihadists and Homeland Security are adept at manipulating media and perception in order to make their moral and political cases, as well as keep track of one another's activities), and it underscores especially the crudity of both sides' approaches. Whether bombing the bad guys or shooting them down in shadowy parking lots, the men who believe they're doing right tend to remain devoted to their belief. The men (and they are invariably men here) who have questions don't have much chance to raise them.