One of the first of a presumed wave of movies that will attempt to convert our modern field of warring crusades—Muslim terrorism and Western anti-terrorist hyper-security—into mezzobrow entertainment, The War Within follows in the introverted footsteps of Hassan (co-writer Ayad Akhtar), a Pakistani wrongly imprisoned and tortured for terrorist affiliations. Whoever his victimizers were, they left him a dedicated suicide bomber, arriving in New York to stay with his childhood friend Sayeed (Firdous Bamji) and connect with a cell planning to blow up Grand Central Terminal.
The film’s title may seem to spill the beans—will the watchful Hassan carry out his mission or renege after enjoying America and flirting with Sayeed’s ravishing sister (Nandana Sen)?—but in fact, whatever inner conflict rages looks to us like moping and staring blankly out at the East River. (Time killed gazing from the beach or dock is a telltale sign of indie floundering.) Shot in DV by Lisa Rinzler, Joseph Castelo’s modest drama struggles for verisimilitude, but it wears clichés like concrete boots, down to the cycle-of-intolerance-and-violence message that we hear every day on NPR. Its low-budget conventionality makes something as risky as a two-shot rare, but the city is often richly captured. Certainly, there’s little narrative urgency—that is, until the final act, when the pretense to “war” is abandoned altogether, and Bamji, already the film’s most genuine presence, slaps it awake with palpable moral outrage.