Assuming our intelligence can be trusted, the way Traitor came to pass is this: Steve Martin, while in the throes of Bringing Down the House, had an idea for an espionage thriller. (In retrospect, it’s easy to imagine how, during that particular production, his mind might have wandered.) It involved an undercover U.S. military operative deep into war-on-terror territory in the Middle East, possibly at the center of an international conspiracy and on the run from terrorists and feds alike. And it ended with a major twist.
Martin told his idea to a producer, who is said to have liked it, but then hired Jeffrey Nachmanoff—co-writer of the glum, dumb The Day After Tomorrow—to assemble a screenplay and direct. Still, Nachmanoff had his own twist to offer, making the protagonist both a Muslim and an American, deeply conflicted about his actions. Then Don Cheadle read the script and wanted in.
Double agent Don Cheadle resurrects some of his Ocean’s 11 sneak skills for Traitor.
And now that Traitor is done, it seems like puffing it up with commercial viability also was a way of watering down its premise. The clever maneuver of the ending remains, and the rest of the movie feels ultimately too much like a theoretical exercise for setting up that debatably surprising twist.
Cheadle plays the undercover operative, a Sudan-born Muslim American named Samir Horn, who speaks several languages and counts both mujahideen and the U.S. Army among his affiliations. But, as he puts it, the one authority to whom he answers is Allah.
The movie begins with Samir selling explosives to jihadists in Yemen, then getting arrested with them and accused of being a traitor who sold them out. It may or may not help that two FBI agents (Guy Pearce and Neal McDonough) seem to consider Samir a person of interest, and come to interrogate him in the Yemeni prison.
They offer freedom in exchange for vital information, but Samir would rather stay put, standing up to a jail yard thug and playing chess with fellow inmate Omar (Said Taghmaoui), who eventually includes him in a prison break and in a terrorist network with plans for havoc in Europe and the U.S.
Plots thicken, blood spills, Jeff Daniels surfaces as a shady CIA lifer, and all the major players find themselves embroiled in a race against time and an impending attack involving terrorists on U.S. buses. It becomes clear that, when he finally answers to his one authority, Samir will have much to answer for indeed.
So it’s a good thing Cheadle supplies the needed moral heft here, because Nachmanoff doesn’t have much to offer. The characters register only faintly—less like the multidimensional people Nachmanoff’s script pretends them to be and more like placeholders in a gimmicky but ultimately simple procedural political thriller.
To its credit, the movie moves swiftly enough to briefly distract from its own hackneyed conventionality. But disappointments and doubts can’t be held off for long.
Had Steve Martin taken the reins of Traitor himself, it might have evolved into a bravely bitter and affecting black comedy. Or maybe it would’ve turned into its own highly lethal sort of suicide bomb. But Martin played it safe by handing his concept over to the Hollywood machine. In this modern age of morally ambiguous entertainment, whether that amounts to a high crime will depend on how much treason the American public can tolerate.