War Within, The

dir: Joseph Castelo
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You have to wonder what the last thing is to go through the mind of a person who has decided not only to kill themselves, but to take a whole heap of other people with them. I’m not talking about the rapidly expanding shockwave, or shrapnel, or their belt buckle as it is propelled upwards and outwards.

I mean the justifications they have been given, or that they give themselves for their actions. A thief justifies their actions based on their selfish need, or the worthiness of the victim for being made so: i.e. the shop or house I’m robbing has insurance, they make shitloads of money anyway, they deserve it etc. A suicide bomber does what, exactly? Justifies their crime by blaming the victims? Blames the regime, the powers that be, the Jews, the universe at large for its unfairness, God, a God, the Gods, Allah, Buddha, the Giant Flying Spaghetti Monster?

There are as many reasons as there are arseholes that perpetrate these atrocities, but the significant difference between a person that kills a bunch of people with a bomb, and a person who blows themselves up as well is that as well as annihilating the targets, they annihilate themselves at the same time.

It’s not an absolute necessity. Even with the advanced precautions security conscious people are taking around what are seen as targets these days, parking a van outside a building or dropping a backpack somewhere without being attached to it still occurs. It takes that special level of pissed-offedness or religious zeal to make it a preferable modus operandi. Or at least that’s how it looks to someone like me. Admittedly I’m hardly an expert on anything, least of all the motivations of terrorists and other nutjobs. But what I am sure of is that since I don’t believe in a sweet hereafter, heavens and hells or divine judgement, I see no value in extinguishing myself and others in the belief that it will garner me some special treatment in the afterlife and some greater purpose in the real world.

It seems as patently ridiculous a belief to me as any of the other beliefs: live a good life but eat the wrong food and go to hell, or be a horrible person to others your whole life but repent on your deathbed and go to heaven, or have consensual sex with the wrong adult in the wrong orifice and be damned for all eternity: it’s all idiotic to me. In truth the belief systems that are required for these religious structures to work all strike me as less than divinely inspired, no matter how murderous or benign.

The War Within follows the adventures of one guy, Hassan (Ayad Akhtar, who also wrote the screenplay) who intends to blow himself up and a whole bunch of innocent people at Grand Central Station in New York City. He has motivation (hatred of America) and conviction (fervent belief in the teachings of Islam and an afterlife as a pampered pimp), and together they are a lethal combination.

As the film begins we see him being nabbed off a Parisian street by some nefarious dudes we assume are part of the extended War on Terror. Via flashbacks we see him being interrogated and tortured. That might, I’m not 100 per cent on this, have something to do with his desire to wreak havoc.

We learn that prior to his rendition, which is a fancy spin word for kidnapping, unlawful imprisonment and torture, he’s had no political or activist leanings, that he wasn’t even particularly religious, and that he cared little for the Clash of Civilisations stuff. Also, his tormentors show him pictures of his murdered (by them) brother, to really seal the deal.

Once released, Hassan sneaks himself into the States, after becoming radicalised in detention, with the express intention of getting back at who he sees as the villains: the commuters who travel through Grand Central each day. The ignorant are not innocent, in his eyes, as he tells someone who isn’t listening, and as such they are responsible for what their government does. And thus they are deserving of what he wishes to unleash upon them.

This chilling logic is not unknown in the world. When he speaks to a young boy about how he, as a Muslim, is obligated to try to right the wrongs being perpetrated because his Muslim brothers are suffering throughout the world, he is calmly making the case for why there is no turning back for him. In this life, there is nothing he can hope for or look forward to apart from yearning for annihilation.

Originally from Pakistan, he meets up with a childhood friend, Sayeed (Firdous Bamji), and stays with his family. They are completely uninterested in anything political, religious or anything apart from living the integrated, assimilated life they deserve in the New Jersey suburbs.

Sayeed and Hassan were close as kids, and you sense that Sayeed wishes they could recapture that closeness. But he, like us, senses the hollowness inside Hassan, and the disconnection he has from life. He meets many of Hassan’s robotic statements and actions with confusion, not suspecting until it is way too late as to how far gone Hassan truly is.

Unlike the similarly themed Paradise Now, which follows the lives of two potential Palestinian suicide bombers, the result is never really in doubt with such a protagonist. Hassan is well acted, there’s no doubt, but there is a central coldness there. He is always polite and courteous, and quite a pious son of a bitch. His observances are done with reverence, with an obsessive level of attention. It is the only thing keeping him together.

Any of the elements and arguments present as examples, as reasons to not go through with such an atrocity, are never really tempting to Hassan. The prospect of family, of belonging, of love with a childhood friend, of healing, of not wreaking vengeance, don’t seem to have a chance against his absolute determination.

The attack is not planned as a solo act initially. Through the nefarious network that brings him to the States and gives him the plan and the wherewithal, he is paired with Khalid, who he survived rendition with. Though Khalid was the zealot in prison, in the States he has been seduced by a very unMuslim lifestyle: strippers, hookers, booze and drugs. As certain as Hassan is, Khalid is profoundly the opposite. On one we can see that the conviction is entirely present, in the other entirely absent. But still they seem to trudge the same path to murderous martyrdom.

This is not the kind of film you enjoy, nor, because of how well it is made and acted, is it a film you endure. It is hard to get into the headspace of such a person, no matter how hideous the end result is. This isn’t the same as a film about a serial killer, or underworld criminals committing murders left right and centre. Though the damage is even greater, we struggle to understand how a person could be so certain of the righteousness of their actions that they can perpetrate something so completely horrific.

I also have to say that I’m amazed a film like this was made, and that I got to see it. I can’t imagine studios having the guts to put out films like this in an intellectual climate where the bellowing of the labels 'traitor' and 'terrorist' drown out rational discourse. The people involved have balls and ovaries, I’ll give them that much.

We, as Western cinemagoers, understand the person who wants revenge for being wronged, for characters whose wives and families are killed who forswear earthly justice and who launch campaigns of vengeance. It’s an entire genre of action films made over the last thirty years. It is with different degrees of understanding that we either accept or reject the eye for an eye mentality, depending on the kind of film, the actors, and the magnitude of the crime committed. There’s a world of difference between The Crow, Catch a Fire, V for Vendetta and In The Bedroom, yet they all hinge on the same justification for the actions taken against the ‘bad guys’: some actions taken against ‘bad’ guys is justifiable in some circumstances, even and especially when it’s not legal.

We cannot understand just how a person can go from being a calm, chilled-out being to someone who wishes to kill anonymous people as revenge, whatever the justification. We can say it’s because of a barbaric religion, or a poisonous ideology, feelings of helplessness, or envy, madness, the desire to externalise the source of their unhappiness, any number of things. But they don’t entirely explain it and we can’t grasp it yet.

It’s a profoundly unsettling headspace. I don’t think The War Within does explain it, whether it’s aimed the perpetrators of 9/11, Timothy McVeigh, or the average suicide bomber. I don’t think any film can, or even should. We should always find it unsettling. Maybe there are enough glimmers of meaning within a film like this to give us some idea, at least.

To fight against it, one would hope. To hope against hope that people could abandon this religious bullshit and realise that there ain’t no paradise filled with virgins, who would be crap in bed anyway, there’s no magical invisible guy living in the sky seeing everything they do and applauding, and there’s no way to fix the problems of this world or the next with the obliteration of the innocent or the guilty, for that matter.

Because they usually, whether innocent or not, have families, and the circle of violence, as War Within artfully shows, always continues.

8 times the only religion I follow has more to do with sex and booze than piety and martyrdom out of 10

“You disgust me.” – The War Within.