Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist contains all the ingredients of a first-rate political thriller: exotic locales, espionage and intrigue, as well as violence.
Scheduled to open in local theatres on April 24, it is based on Mohsin Hamid’s eponymous novel about a smart and ambitious Muslim man from Pakistan whose dogged pursuit of the American dream is abruptly upended by the Arab terrorist attack on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
The Pakistani, Changez (Riz Ahmed), is so radicalized by these events that he must choose between the allure of his upwardly mobile career or the siren call of his homeland. The tension inherent in this agonizing choice endows this crackling movie with much of its vigour and elan.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist gets under way with the abduction of an expatriate American academic in Lahore, Pakistan. As it shifts to an atmospheric outdoor café in the same city, Changez relates his experiences in the United States to Bobby (Liev Schreiber), an American journalist who moonlights as a spy.
“Looks can be deceiving,” says Changez as the film flashes back a decade to his early days in America.
Nair draws a well-rounded portrait of a Princeton University graduate with a taste for the finer things in life whose post-9/11 disillusionment with the United States drives him back to Pakistan and Islam and away from the western values he appears to have internalized.
The first segment moves at an almost frantic pace as Changez becomes a high-flying financial analyst and valuator at a reputable Wall Street management consulting company. His all-American mentor, Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland), is impressed by Changez’s smarts, energy and work ethic and sends him off on missions around the world.
But in an ominous harbinger of the future, Changez predicts that he will be the dictator of an Islamic republic with a nuclear capability.
Shades of contemporary Pakistan, a virtually dysfunctional nation riven by the poison of sectarian politics.
As Changez makes his mark on his bosses, he falls for Erica (Kate Hudson), the demure niece of one of the principals of the firm that employs him. These scenes unfold in seamless fashion, enveloping a viewer in Changez’s relentless quest for success.
In the second segment, Changez undergoes a wholesale transformation that tears him away from his American roots. As he confides to Bobby, 9/11 was a turning point. As the Twin Towers in Manhattan came crashing down, he recalls, waves of awe and pleasure rolled over him.
But for Changez, glee soon turns to anger as America embarks on the war against international terrorism. At an airport, he is racially profiled, and much to his indignation, he is treated like an enemy of the state: detained, strip-searched and interrogated.
Having been sorely disappointed by what he describes as U.S. arrogance and xenophobia, he grows a beard and modifies his views of the world. This transformation affects his relationship with Erica. As his life unravels, Changez decides to “live in the truth.” Retreating to his Pakistani identity, he is recruited by an Islamic extremist group in Pakistan, where he has taken a new job.
With a haunting Urdu soundtrack defining its mood, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, filmed in Lahore, New York City, Atlanta, Istanbul and New Delhi, generally moves along briskly. But at times, it is somewhat disjointed and bogs down in confusion.
The performances, however, are first-rate, and Ahmed and Sutherland are especially effective.