Abducted on a Paris street by American operatives, innocent Pakistani engineer Hassan (Akhtar) is forcibly extradited to Karachi, where he's interrogated, tortured and chucked into prison with Algerian suspect Khalid (Sandoval). Three years later, having embraced Islam and the global imperatives of radical jihadism, Hassan sneaks into the U.S. from Canada and shows up at the house of best friend Sayeed (Bamji), where he is heartily welcomed by the unsuspecting family. Secretly, however, the polite, clean-shaven Hassan plots with Khalid and other members of a terror cell to detonate a fleet of New York City taxicabs packed with explosives.
As a portrait of one suicide bomber's nihilistic odyssey, Joseph Castelo's anxious drama, written with Akhtar and Tom Glynn, bears a double burden: to make us understand Hassan's murderous rationale while also presenting a plausible, compelling story. And it's not always up to the task. Despite Sayeed's genuine concern and the flirtatious attention of his gorgeous sister, Duri (Sen), we never doubt that Hassan will carry out his mission; neither are we given more than a hint of why he's so fervently adopted Koranic martyrdom, leaching the film of both suspense and psychological coherence. At least Castelo finds intelligent, often chilling ways to make us think hard about post--September 11 issues such as American hegemony and racial profiling. But in its bold, cinematic attempt to address a burning question—why do they do it?—The War Within has no better answers than those found in the reams of ink already spilled over this stubbornly elusive issue.—Damon Smith