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The War Within (July 5/06)

The lesser known of the two suicide-bomber movies released in 2005 - Paradise Now received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film - The War Within excels in spite of its obviously miniscule budget, as director Joseph Castelo deftly infuses the film with an atmosphere of palpable tension and unease. Slow moving yet thoroughly engrossing, the film does a nice job of exploring the effectiveness of the so-called "war on terror" without ever coming off as preachy or heavy-handed.

Ayad Akhtar stars as Hassan, a young engineering student living in Paris who finds himself drawn into the world of terrorism following several years of torture and imprisonment. He arrives in New York City expecting to blow himself up within the walls of Grand Central Station, but after his mission is called off, Hassan must reconcile his fundamental beliefs with his new (and comfortable) life in America.

Castelo - along with co-screenwriters Akhtar and Tom Glynn - generally avoids the temptation to turn Hassan or any of his associates into cut-and-dried villains; there's a particularly effective sequence in which Hassan explains his cause to a young boy (and, by association, the viewer) using an apt, easy-to-follow analogy. That Hassan slowly becomes a surprisingly sympathetic character (as much as one can sympathize with a would-be suicide bomber, anyway) speaks highly of the script's subtlety, as does Akhtar's superb, nuanced performance.

Though The War Within is - on the surface - a thriller revolving around a New York-based terrorist, the majority of the film actually has the feel of a reflective, fish-out-of-water drama (not surprisingly, Hassan's newfound Muslim attitudes don't go over all that well with his childhood friends). It's a vibe that works exceedingly well thanks primarily to Castelo's confident, steady direction, and there's little doubt that the filmmaker is destined for bigger and better things (imagine what he could do with an actual budget).

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