The Reluctant Fundamentalist includes one of the most chilling scenes I've witnessed in quite some time. As video of the World Trade Center's first tower being destroyed plays on television, the now-famous image abruptly grabs the attention of a young businessman watching cable news in his hotel suite. He--like all of us on Sept. 11, 2001--is frozen in the moment as he watches tragedy unfold. But then the second of the twin towers collapses and something horrifying happens: The corners of the young man's mouth curl up.
"Despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased," the lead character of The Reluctant Fundamentalist tells another man a few years after the attack.
Having read Mohsin Hamid's brilliant novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, in 2007--I knew the scene was approaching as I watched director Mira Nair's adaptation of the bestseller, but my stomach still churned as the title character, Changez Khan, morphed from a Pakistani idealist into an American capitalist and ultimately, well, a reluctant fundamentalist who found a cruel and warped sense of satisfaction in watching Americans perish.
"The symbolism of it all," says Khan. "The fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees."
The film adaptation isn't perfect: Its characters too often talk in speeches. Yet, when I revisited the novel, I was reminded that the narrative was indeed a tightly stitched series of preachy monologues. So, to director Nair's credit, she pledges allegiance to her source material while still opening up the story to include a series of fully developed supporting characters.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist offers no easy answer to the befuddlement that is terrorism; instead, it provides new or different ways to frame questions. And the story, though written in 2007, couldn't be more relevant. Why, for instance, did young men who grew up among Boston's citizenry choose to kill their neighbors April 15, when they detonated a bomb at their city's marathon? The Washington Post reported that the surviving bombing suspect "told interrogators that the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan motivated him and his brother to carry out the attack." The Reluctant Fundamentalist had no prescience of last month's tragedy, but this potent piece of fiction serves as a starting point for new conversations about what divides us.
"In that moment [9/11], I felt the awe, audacity, the ruthlessness of the act, surpassed only by its genius," says Khan. "David had struck Goliath."
His words are all the more terrifying because we watch Khan being cultivated in the first half of the film by the fundamentalism of Manhattan-based acquisitions, mergers and economic circumvention. But we also watch how Khan, in post-9/11 America, is profiled by law enforcement--because of his skin color --ultimately pushing him back to Pakistan and into the arms of the fundamentalism of reprisal, insurgency and faith-based zealotry.
Declan Quinn's cinematography is handsome, and the supporting cast (Liev Schreiber, Kiefer Sutherland and Kate Hudson) is impressive, but it is the lead performance from Riz Ahmed as Khan that sparks a small wildfire on the screen. He sizzles with intensity while maintaining sincerity and eliciting surprising sympathy.
But what are we to make of his smile as our nation is attacked? Is this a terrorist, a fundamentalist, both or neither? Don't be reluctant to consider the question--or this superb film.