- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2005

What makes a young man cross the line?

From educated cosmopolitan to shadowy jihadist.

From peasant to guerrilla warrior.

Two gripping new movies out today, “The War Within” and “Innocent Voices,” dramatize the temptation of political extremism, “War” in contemporary New York and “Voices” in war-torn 1980s-era El Salvador.

They share something else in common: circuitous indictments of U.S. foreign policy.

“Innocent Voices,” from Mexican-born director Luis Mandoki, joins 11-year-old, fatherless Chava (Carlos Padilla) at a purgatorial crossroads at which he must choose between his country’s U.S.-backed army, which forcibly drafts boys at age 12, or fight alongside left-wing peasant guerrillas.

Mr. Mandoki conveniently soft-pedals the reality of El Salvador’s Marxist guerrillas — they were a murderous gang — but at least the lineaments of his story are easy to understand: A bullying dictatorship forced an impoverished villager into making an unbearable choice.

Where “Voices” is coated with Cold War-era mold, “The War Within” takes on hot-button issues such as the practice of sending terror suspects to foreign countries for interrogation.

It is a complicated, chilling, sometimes infuriating movie that criticizes the United States for trying to impose democracy at the point of a gun but doesn’t duly credit the ambitions of the radical Islamists who seek to restore an imperial caliphate — and from there impose medieval values on the outside world.

In its first act, the movie plucks Hassan (Ayad Akhtar), an educated Pakistani immigrant, from the streets of Paris and puts him through a brutal sequence of detainee abuse. Hassan’s connection to a terror plot is vague at best, but his time under American stewardship, it is implied, helped turn a secular Muslim into a pious extremist who is eyeing the destruction of New York’s Grand Central Station.

This rings false: The vast majority of radical Islamists need no such encouragement and embrace terror quite on their own.

At a realistic level, “War” director Joseph Castelo agrees: “That clearly wasn’t the case with the Saudi Arabian bombers of 9/11, who hadn’t been tortured and came from affluent families,” he says.

Nevertheless, he says the sequence is a compressed metaphor for what he calls “the alchemy of the suicide bomber” — from the earliest members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, many of whom were tortured, to Mohamed Atta, the Egyptian-born ringleader of the September 11 attacks.

“The War Within” is right and brave, however, to confront openly a fact Hollywood — and much of official Washington — refuses to admit: that if you scratch a terrorist, you’re more likely to find a young Muslim male of Middle Eastern or South Asian origin than an elderly white woman from Iowa.

Mr. Akhtar, who co-wrote the movie with Mr. Castelo and Tom Glynn (the trio were classmates at Columbia University’s film school), says: “There is a challenge to Muslims in this film. It’s a message that cuts both ways. We’re saying to American audiences, ‘These are good people’ and to Muslims, ‘You’ve got to take stock of what’s going on in your communities.’ ”

“What the film really intended to do is touch people beneath the level of hardened political discourse,” adds Mr. Akhtar, who grew up in Milwaukee in a secular Muslim family.

As “Innocent Voices” looks compassionately on beleaguered Salvadoran villagers, “The War Within” empathizes with blameless bystanders. In the latter case, it’s a Westernized Jersey City family that takes in Hassan while unaware of his catastrophic designs.

The family is headed by one of Hassan’s oldest friends, Sayeed (played by Firdous Bamji). Hassan insinuates his ideology into their lifestyle — teaching Sayeed’s son, Ali, how to pray properly and coaxing Sayeed’s sister out of a relationship with a non-Muslim. (The movie gently, but incisively, deals with the sexual dysfunction of the Islamist mind.)

Mr. Akhtar says he and his fellow scripters were strongly influenced by Jessica Stern’s book “Terror in the Name of God,” which looks at fundamentalists across the major monotheistic religions. The filmmakers noticed a commonality: “a sense that the world is not right and that one has the answer that is going to make it right, and that the answer needs to be instituted at all costs.”

“At all costs”: That’s where Grand Central Station, with its literal and symbolic openness, its picture of functioning civil society, comes in.

Despite being tagged, like “Innocent Voices,” as a leftist screed (the New York Post called it “repellent”), Mr. Castelo says the movie “is about empowering moderates. In the cross hairs of extremists are people walking to work.”

As audiences walk out of “Innocent Voices” contemplating the choice 11-year-old Chava had to make, Mr. Castelo’s ideal viewer will be thinking about the future of “War’s” Ali.

Namely, will he choose liberal civilization and all its messy compromises? Or will he choose the purity, and annihilation, of holy war?

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