The first thing Hassan (Ayad Akhtar) does when he is smuggled into the United States from Canada is to shave his beard. He is a Muslim of Pakistani origin, so the less he looks like a terrorist, the better. This is especially true in his case, because he IS a terrorist.
This is “The War Within,” a film whose title refers to battles that rage inside people, as well as inside groups. It’s a serious movie, with no nonsense or joviality, written by its director, Joseph Castelo, along with his college friends Tom Glynn and Ayad Akhtar. Akhtar, who is also the film’s star, was born and raised in Wisconsin, but is of Middle Eastern descent and thus has a personal connection to some of the film’s themes.
Hassan’s brother was killed during the U.S. attack on Afghanistan, a fact that saddens their lifelong friend Sayeed (Firdous Bamji) but that does far more psychological damage to Hassan. Sayeed and his wife and children, along with his sister Duri (Nandana Sen), share a comfortable home in Jersey City, N.J. They live as faithful Muslims while also living a happy existence in modern America.
Hassan is an extremist, part of that branch of Muslim culture that doesn’t see how such a dual existence is possible. Either you hate America, or you’re not a good Muslim. Sayeed senses Hassan’s hesitance to accept American culture, but he doesn’t realize how far-gone his friend is.
While Sayeed thinks Hassan has become too troubled and morose, Hassan’s associate, Izzy (Wayman Ezell), his immediate supervisor in the vast and well-organized terrorist plot that is about to be enacted, thinks Hassan has become too complacent. He sees Hassan living with Sayeed’s family, taking an interest in Duri, working a normal job in Manhattan, and he fears Hassan is losing his nerve.
In truth, Hassan is conflicted, and that inner turmoil is the film’s reason for being. His part of the mission will involve an attack on Grand Central Station, and the fact that Duri works near there gives him pause. How committed is he to his ideals? Can he carry out a plan that will result in the death of friends? Is it worth it?
Meanwhile, there is debate within the American Muslim community about the merits and evils of the United States. Sayeed and his family realize it is not perfect but love the country for the opportunities it affords them. Others refuse to accept America’s decadence and arrogance, though they don’t become terrorists because of it.
“The War Within,” which is taut and suspenseful even when it’s just being introspective, doesn’t quite master the art of getting inside the head of a terrorist, but it does make us see Hassan as a human being. While we’re not expected to agree with him, we do come to see how a person can get to the point he has reached. The question that plagues him and his friends is: If a Muslim becomes devout, does that mean he’ll become a terrorist? Or is there still some middle ground?
B (1 hr., 32 min.; )