Sunday, May 26, 2013

School Session: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Riz Ahmed (centre, in red) stars in The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Whatever else I may say about director Mira Nair’s new film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, I have to give it credit for one fact: it is one of the few movies in recent years that attempts to take on some of the complex issues of the post-9/11 milieu. The past dozen years have witnessed some staggering events: terrorism in New York and Washington, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, torture in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Yet for all that history, we have precious few films that capture the essence of the era. The best in my opinion all come from the same director, Britain’s Paul Greengrass. With United 93, the second two installments in the Jason Bourne franchise, and even Green Zone, Greengrass managed to keep his finger on the pulse of the times, mapping our moods and anxieties even as we lived through them (much the way the great directors did in the Vietnam era).

But Greengrass’s movies matched their seriousness of purpose with intelligent writing, which is where Nair’s fails. Even Green Zone, hampered by a clich├ęd script, was saved by Greengrass’s adrenaline-pumping, kinetic action directing. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by contrast, feels like a potted plant. The film comes from a novel of the same name by Moshin Hamid, and gets bogged down in the exposition of its source material. That material could work in the hands of the right adapters. But Nair and screenwriters Ami Boghani and Hamid haven’t figured out how to dramatize the various interchanges. The result is too much talk and too few thrills.

The story follows a young Pakistani man called Changez, and his transformation from the embodiment of American capitalism to quasi-jihadist. Changez comes from a middle-class family in Lahore, and right off the bat evinces alienation from his traditional culture. His father, Abu, quotes Pakistani poetry in relaxed manner, but Changez finds it silly. Instead, he thirsts for America and its material success, which he soon finds: after acing Princeton, he lands a coveted position at a top Wall Street consulting firm. Soon he is the company wiz kid and darling of Jim Cross, his boss (Kiefer Sutherland). Even better, he scores an American girlfriend, Erica (Kate Hudson), who happens to be the niece of the company’s chief partner. It is summer 2001, and life is good.

This narrative is all retrospect, framed by an interview Changez is giving in the present day to Bobby Lincoln, an American reporter played by Liev Schreiber. The setting is a dilapidated student boarding house back in Lahore. Armed men kidnapped the university’s American professor during the night, and Lincoln believes Changez knows his whereabouts. But the Pakistani makes any information he divulges contingent upon Lincoln’s hearing his whole life story. Meanwhile, the American relays messages back to CIA field agents, for whom he’s become a spook.

Riz Ahmed and Kate Hudson in The Reluctant Fundamentalist
This frame setups the arc of the movie, making us wonder how an entrepreneurial genius living the fast life in Manhattan could windup in such a subaltern reality. The answer is 9/11. The towers fall and soon Changez is attracting the wrong kind of attention, experiencing anti-Muslim backlash in a string of altercations with police, immigration officers, and disgruntled clients. He finds solace only in Erica, but their relationship undergoes internal strain as she continues to mourn the untimely death of her previous, American, boyfriend. The filmmakers would have us believe that these events—along with his family’s cries to come home—push Changez toward an identity crisis. “I love the United States of America,” he tells an FBI agent at one point, but the United States, he seems to conclude, doesn’t love him. He feels compelled to embrace not merely his Muslim identity and native country, but a more assertive, anti-American brand of them.

The problem is that none of these events are rendered in a way that feels authentic. The movie tells us that Changez had to make the choice he did, but we don’t really buy it. He could easily have stayed in America, but part of his change is due to his own renewed interest in his Muslim roots. Indeed, he even confesses to Lincoln that he felt a tinge of pleasure at the 9/11 attacks—David had struck Goliath. The movie wears its intellectual trappings on its sleeve so broadly it’s discomfiting.

And it gives into melodrama one too many times. Sutherland is particularly guilty in this respect, barking and snarling most of his lines. As Changez, Riz Ahmed gives a relaxed, cool performance. He has an ease about him that you enjoy, though at times one wonders if he is a bit too dispassionate. And he lacks believability in the Lahore scenes—he seems quite right as a hot shot corporate suit, but makes an unintimidating fundamentalist. The office banter between him and his colleagues is light and fun, especially when Nelsan Ellis is onscreen. Ahmed’s early scenes with Kate Hudson are splendid, too, showing some of the novel’s non-superficiality. Ms. Hudson does the most effective piece of acting in the picture, displaying an emotional vulnerability that feels truly genuine. But, in the end, the melodrama of the script undermines even her exceptional performance.

Changez tells Lincoln at the beginning of their interview that appearances can be deceiving, as if to warn him (and us) that he’s not a terrorist even though he looks like one. Yet given the way the filmmakers set up the movie, we can’t help but think otherwise. This, along with its contrived ending, makes its big point feel like nothing but a didactic school lesson. And school lessons never do justice to reality, whether of the past or today.

Nick Coccoma is a Master of Divinity candidate at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. He holds an M.A. in philosophy from Boston College, and a B.A. in theatre from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he also taught religion at the Nativity Preparatory School, a tuition-free, Jesuit middle school serving boys from low-income families in Boston.

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