'The War Within' is the rare Western film that dares to tackle the highly controversial subject of terrorism, not from an American perspective, but from that of a terrorist. And one, no less, who is living out his final days as he prepares to commit a suicide bombing. Yet there is no fire and brimstone, no burning buildings, no pumped-up Hollywood melodrama of the kind that (however noble and well-intentioned) usually seeks only to placate our anti-Muslim preconceptions and passions post-9/11, not challenge them. Instead, 'The War Within' defies easily categorization. Closest to a character study, it is a quiet, meditative experience that achieves its power solely through the empathy it generates for a character our culture has always told us we are supposed to despise.
Ayad Akhtar stars as Hassan, a Pakistani engineering student in Paris who was imprisoned and interrogated by Western intelligence services for suspected terrorist activities. Formerly only an intellectual supporter of jihad, Hassan undergoes a radical transformation and embarks upon a terrorist mission, covertly entering the United States to join a cell based in New York City. After meticulous planning for an event of maximum devastation, all the members of the cell are arrested except for Hassan and one other, Sayeed (Firdous Bamji). With nowhere else to turn, he must rely on the hospitality of his new friend, who is living the American dream with his family in New Jersey. What unfolds is a tersely observed, objective examination of the state of mind of a suicide bomber while he tries to decide whether or not to carry out his deadly mission.
There are many who will dismiss 'The War Within' sight unseen, simply on "principle." The idea of generating "sympathy" for our perceived enemy is anathema. But I sincerely believe that the stronger the reaction we have to a film, or even the simple fact of its existence, the more it means it is tapping into some deep-seated part of ourselves we don't want to see reflected back at us. "We envision them as mindless robots," writer-director Joseph Castelo said of the suicide bombers portrayed in his film. "But if we don't understand what's inside their heads, how are we ever going to deal with them?" What makes 'The War Within' so powerful and uncompromising is that it sticks to this idea, and doesn't let its characters -- or us as viewers -- off the hook. We are forced to see Hassan, Sayeed and members of cells like the ones fictionalized in 'The War Within' as real, three-dimensional people, however much we may abhor their politics.
As Hassan, Akhtar has to hold 'The War Within' together solely on his own. I was not familiar with the actor (who also co-wrote the screenplay), but his performance at first seems so internal as to be non-existent. However what Akhtar is able to achieve, ultimately brilliantly, is to convey the preoccupation and detachment that is so characteristic of the devout. Hassan can only process experiences through the filter of belief. To enjoy a walk through Central Park on a beautiful day, or the school play of his best friend's daughter, or a mere cup of coffee, proves impossible -- even the simplest action ahas implications from a higher power. Hassan is "present" in our world, but he is not "there." There is no connection to everyday human experience. Perhaps that is one of the profound ironies of 'The War Within' -- in his willingness to die for the divine, Hassan fails to see the beauty in all of his god's creation.
Castelo is a native New Yorker, and felt compelled after the events of 9/11 and the near-hysteria that followed, to make 'The War Within.' Which may be why, ultimately, it is such a ray of hope. This is not a film made with a clear agenda, or by a big Hollywood studio that needs to appease mainstream, homogenized audiences. Ideas have not been watered down to make them more palatable. And challenging, conflicting emotions are not blunted to avoid offending special interests. Such artistic courage continues all the way through to the film's climax. 'The War Within' ends on a note that is not cynical nor nihilistic, but also not saccharine or sentimental. I will not spoil the choice Hassan ultimately makes, other than to say that perhaps it is not his destination that matters, but his journey. Because just the fact that he was able to challenge his own deeply-held convictions, if for only a moment, and embrace the ideas of compassion and tolerance, offers the promise that our future may one day be free from terrorism.
Magnolia Home Entertainment presents 'The War Within' in a 1.78:1 widescreen 1080p/MPEG-2 transfer. The film was shot on HD video, and quite frankly it looks it. Film-based material tends to have trouble resolving detail in low light conditions, but excels on the brighter end of the scale. Video is the reverse -- it is far more adept at handling dark scenes, but can crumble under bright lights, when tend to blow out easily. 'The War Within' is indicative of this, as it handles shadow details well, but has a very video-esque appearance in well-lit scenes.
Of course, the "source" is in great shape, as there is no grain or print issues to be concerned with. Colors are rather muted, however. Aside from a vivid red here or there, and decent enough blues and greens in bright exteriors, the film's palette never leaps off the screen. Hues are stable, however, and do not appear particularly noisy or oversaturated. Too bad fleshtones are all over the place, seeming too red in some scenes and too green in others. The image also never once popped for me, with bland contrast that again helps shadow detail, but looks soft and "smeary." This has a lot to do with the natural light used for most of the film -- 'The War Within' never lets style get in the way of story, which does lend an appropriate, documentary-like feel to the proceedings.
Still, I always knew I was watching video throughout, and it did have a distancing effect for me. I have seen some HD video that has blown me away with how close it approximates film, but that isn't the case here. To be fair though, I'm still giving this one a solid video rating, because it appears to accurately reproduce the filmmaker's intentions and the original source material.
Two soundtrack options are offered: DTS-HD High-Resolution 5.1 surround (at 1.5mbps) and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (at 640kbps), both in English. Unfortunately, despite the extra bits for the DTS-HD track, the film's sound design is so sparse it really doesn't make much difference.
I could probably count the number of discrete effects heard during 'The War Within' on one hand. The surrounds are just about inactive, with only very minor ambiance, usually mixed with the film's almost atonal, droning "score." Effects are also thin in general -- 'The War Within' is a very quiet film. It suits the intended tone and mood quite well, so I can't discount the filmmaker's intentions. Tech specs are also up to snuff, with no major source issues, such as distortion or dropouts, etc. Bass is also perfectly fine, all things considered. However, while the actors are always clear and intelligible, the film's limited budget is obvious. Much of the dialogue sounds ADR'd or overdubbed. It also sits inorganically on top of the rest of the mix, like it was all pieced together with ProTools on a laptop -- clearly, this one was done on the cheap.
The extras are slim. The sole supplement is a screen-specific audio commentary with writer/director Joseph Castelo and writer/actor Ayad Akhtar. I was highly looking forward to this track after viewing the film, and it is often fascinating. 'The War Within' was obviously a labor of love for both, and this track should go a long way toward reversing opinions of those who may already have their guns out blazing against the very idea of creating a film around the central character of a suicide bomber. In fact, the best parts of the track are by far when the pair veer off of the screen-specific production aspects of the commentary, and to sociopolitical discussions of terrorism, our current cynical (and some might argue government-manufactured) culture of fear, and how living in New York post-9/11 led Castelo to conceive of the original idea for the movie. If ever there was a commentary essential to our complete understanding of a film, this is it. Truly, it's a must-listen.
'The War Within' is a thought-provoking, courageous film -- one that deserves to be seen. This Blu-ray release is not cutting-edge, nor is it any way demo material. But the video and audio serve this shot-on-HD film well, and the audio commentary is enlightening. Perhaps 'The War Within' is probably not the kind of film you will want to watch twice, so it may not warrant a purchase, but it is absolutely a must-rent.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.