A haunting companion piece to Hany Abu-Assad’s forthcoming character study of Palestinian suicide bombers Paradise Now, director Joseph Castelo’s The War Within probes the motivations of a Western-educated Pakistani planning to detonate a chest-strapped bomb in Grand Central Station. Three years after being detained and tortured by American agents for suspected terrorist activity, the well-traveled Hassan (Ayad Akhtar, who also co-wrote the script) returns to the U.S. (where he had studied at the University of Maryland) with covert plans to wage war against a democracy he believes spreads injustice throughout the Muslim world.
Staying at the home of a childhood friend named Sayeed (Firdous Bamji), whose family has comfortably assimilated into its new homeland, Hassan soon reveals to his hosts a new, burning devoutness tinged with icy anger and resentment. Though partially inspired by his own treatment at the hands of the military, Hassan’s primary motivation for carrying out the planned attack is his conviction that it is “God’s work.” But as the film’s title suggests, the story’s central battle is waged inside Hassan himself, as the true believer’s interaction with American life (and Sayeed’s daughter Duri, whom he pines for but rejects because, in hypocritical sexist fashion, she’s been tainted by relations with other men) calls into question his unflinching certainty.
In the movie’s thematic centerpiece, a mosque preacher states that “the true jihad [is] the struggle of everyday life” to do good and combat evil, a vague guiding principle—does it mean that Muslims should destroy that which the Koran deems immoral, or does it refer to each man’s internal struggle to make himself better?—that astutely pinpoints the way in which Islamic doctrine opens itself up to violent, intolerant interpretation. In a trip to Grand Central, Hassan remarks that the terminal “reminds me of a mosque back home,” and the would-be mass murderer’s increasing affection for the Westernized Duri further reinforces the notion that the character’s desire to destroy America is, at least in part, driven by a wish to obliterate some aspect of himself.
Unlike the more graceful and assured Paradise Now, Castelo’s rough-around-the-edges, visually mediocre HD-shot film not only questions its subject’s suicidal methods of revolt but the justness of jihad itself, using the assimilated Sayeed and his belief in American multiculturalism as a counterpoint to Hassan’s virulent, Islam-inspired hate. And thus by the time The War Within arrives at its inevitably tragic conclusion, what’s elucidated is not simply the far-reaching collateral damage wrought by terrorism, but the fact that those who claim to possess righteous clarity are usually also willfully blind to the moral grayness that colors life.