When I look at a film, as an individual viewer with my own distinct DNA, biochemical profile, ocular deficiencies, brain damage, life experiences, needs, wants, peeves, and perversions, I don’t necessarily see what you see. But there is something called a “communal experience.” I remember looking over at a row of 40 or more people staring up at the Valkyrie helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now. Every face wore the same expression. I remember the gasps and applause that erupted in the packed house at Symphony Space when a deranged kidnapper fell to Takashi Shimura’s sword in slo-mo in The Seven Samurai. I remember the cloud of compassionate despair that suffocated me and others when young Igor struggled to look after dead Amadou’s wife and baby in La Promesse. We were in this together. And I can recall, just the other day, a room full of men going “Woooo shit!” when Sergio Leone panned up a monumental tangle of leather chaps and duster jacket to the roguish, angelic face of Woody Strode at the beginning of Once Upon a Time in The West.
Those utterly unrelated flicks share a respect for time and space, for the moment, that has disappeared from American films. Few of our big gun filmmakers know how to leave a tender moment alone. As a result, we leave the theater alone in our disappointment. Or at least I do. But judging from the casual “what’s next” atmosphere of contemporary moviegoing, I feel pretty comfortable saying “we.”
Traitor is a movie about some of the most terrifying and inescapable facts of our times, and I walked out of it whistling and chewing gum. What’s next? I could give you an intricate, sequence by sequence breakdown of why it is so forgettable despite its memorable performances and action cinematography, but I’m tired, man. Tired of writing the same review for each of Ho’wood’s precision engineered attempts at serious fun.
Traitor is a summer thrill ride that contemplates the limits of devotion—to country, to faith, to loved ones, to personal and professional codes. Sounds tasty, except that the filmmakers’ temporal and spatial disregard turns the whole shebang into one of those zippity TV intelligence agency procedurals that TV Guide would call “Riveting!” I could swear I just heard the same drum-machine electronica riff that accompanies a Traitor prison break sequence on a DVD of the crime show Kidnapped. And Alias. And CSI. And 24. Ditto the digi-snap-zooms, King Kong-amplified body blows, synth stabs, Private Ryan shutter judder, desaturated colors, oversaturated colors, flimsy depth-of-field, pitying piano tinkles, frenetic cuts (on even the simplest, quietest moments) and Syriana faux verité (every time craggy higher ups gather in conference rooms to speak gravely about the plot point of the moment.)
Seasoned screenwriter/first-time director Jeffrey Nachmanoff supervises with state-of-the-art professionalism, which means that the film’s primetime visual flow and aural assault blunt the impact and intrigue of his genuinely thoughtful screenplay. Much of that thoughtfulness comes through in Don Cheadle’s performance as an African-born American arms dealer drafted into the ranks of Islamic terrorists. Nachmanoff has an eye for masculine screen presence almost as piercing as Leone’s eye for Strode, Bronson, Robards and Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West. He has flinty fun with the banter between good-Fed/bad-Fed duo Guy Pearce and Neal McDonough; studies the Arab handsomeness of Saïd Taghmaoui’s deadly profile and Aly Khan’s oversized dark eyes. These are some dashing fanatical maniacs.
But unlike Leone, or, say, the Coen brothers on No Country for Old Men (the 2007 film that all of Ho’wood’s shop steward genre directors should be forced to watch at the point of a scimitar), Nachmanoff just doesn’t care for the moment. He drowns, abbreviates or telegraphs every opportunity to make us live in a life-sized, real-time, subjective, suspenseful incident. When the film’s second major plot twist, a scene of horrible/triumphant violence, occurred, the audience at the screening I attended erupted in laughter. Many critics will swear it was the plot point’s improbability that had them rolling. I say a real filmmaker who doesn’t follow the prevailing crowd of aural/visual bullies can make us believe damn near anything—and feel it in our bones.
Steven Boone is a New York-based critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl Is Heavy and the publisher of Big Media Vandalism.