Spy 100, #87: Traitor

With the majority of the films on the Spy 100 list focusing on the Cold War and World War II, it’s good to see some contemporary spy movies make the cut, and Traitor (2008) is a worthy selection. It’s the story of Samir Horn (Don Cheadle), a Muslim of Sudanese-American descent, who becomes the subject in an international FBI investigation. A former U.S. soldier with demolitions training, Horn is arrested during a raid in Yemen while selling bomb detonators to terrorists. The FBI man leading the op, Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce), tries to recruit Horn’s help gathering intelligence, but Horn refuses and finds himself imprisoned, where he first impresses, then befriends another terrorist, Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui). A precisely clocked prison break orchestrated by Omar’s terrorist allies sets Horn loose as well, and he soon becomes a trusted and useful member of Omar’s cell, which is planning a major terrorist attack in the U.S. heartland.  Or so it all appears, anyway…

Fans of excellent contemporary spy shows like MI-5 or Sleeper Cell (the latter is in fact a closer parallel) will find a lot to like in Traitor, which is similar in tone and subject matter, a spy thriller for the terrorism and fear tactics of the post-9/11 era. The plot is well structured, if not entirely surprising, with most of the requisite elements: rival agencies getting their signals crossed, spies on the front lines with mixed feelings about their work, friendships between enemies and animosity among allies, messages about sacrifice and betrayal. That may be the film’s one flaw, in fact; it delivers everything you want from a spy film, perhaps to a fault. For me, this is hardly a problem, of course — or, perhaps merely a problem of having watched so many spy films! Cheadle carries the story well as the conflicted protagonist, and Pearce is also convincing as the FBI agent on his tail. The film is strengthened by its broad canvas, as Horn’s suspenseful adventure carries him all across the Middle East, Europe, and North America. Beautiful scenery, engaging performances, a tense, complicated story — for the seasoned spy buff, what’s not to like?

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