The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Directed by Mira Nair
This movie does something shocking: it dares to take seriously the views of someone who would be swiftly labeled an extremist or worse by those afraid of geopolitical complexity. It tracks how racism from without and political awareness from within can push, step-by-step, an America-loving Muslim (played by Riz Ahmed) from a fast-track Wall Street job to a professorship in Istanbul—a position of influence over those most susceptible to terrorism’s messages. The extent of Ahmed’s involvement in anti-Western activities is the plot's driving mystery, and it’s a shame that Fundamentalist arrives so soon after Homeland, which explored similar territory with greater nuance, a stronger espionage angle, and the always-successful tactic of not hiring Kate Hudson.
This movie is set in the present day Istanbul, with journalist Liev Schreiber interviewing Ahmed for a story on “militant academia” in Islam, a story he hopes will illuminate the recent kidnapping of an American professor. Ahmed’s decade-long story comprises much of the film, starting when he was a financial prodigy under Kiefer Sutherland and in a complex relationship with an artist (Hudson). After 9/11, he begins to reexamine his loyalties and history.
Though his initial reaction to the event (an attack “whose ruthlessness was surpassed only by its genius” in striking American arrogance, he says) is the kind of thing that ends most conversations, the film crucially sympathizes with his struggle to understand his feelings. It’s understandable that his American patriotism would suffer after the attack because of the anti-Arab mood and the rush to military action. And it’s understandable that charges from other Muslims that he abandoned his heritage for the American dream would cut deep. (Ahmed is quite good in the early parts of the story, but is never convincingly ambiguous in the modern segments.)
The personal story at the heart of Fundamentalist is surrounded by a spy story that is enjoyably twisty, though most of the twists involve secondary characters, which dampens their effect. (Director Mira Nair does prove a surprisingly strong action director.) In a world that forces black-and-white choices on these issues, this film finds most of its drama in the complexity of not knowing how to feel.
Opens April 26