‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ explores one man’s segue to radical Islam
BY RICHARD ROEPER SUN-TIMES COLUMNIST May 2, 2013 1:36PM
Changez Riz Ahmed
Lincoln Liev Schreiber
Erica Kate Hudson
Cross Kiefer Sutherland
Abu Om Puri
Cooper Martin Donovan
IFC Films presents a film directed by Mira Nair. Written by William Wheeler, based on the novel by Mohsin Hamid. Running time: 130 minutes. Rated R (for language, some violence and brief sexuality). Opening Friday at Landmark Century.
Updated: June 4, 2013 6:06AM
Imagine being a handsome, off-the-charts smart, young hotshot at a prestigious Wall Street firm in New York in the spring of 2001.
The world is yours. You drive a sleek car, you have a great apartment, your boss dotes on you. Even a walk in the park turns into a meet-cute with a beautiful photographer from a wealthy family.
That you’re Pakistani-born isn’t much of an issue in 21st century cosmopolitan New York City. Occasionally there’s some condescension from Americans who find you a bit ... exotic, but it’s hardly a day-to-day issue.
Then one night, you’re on a business trip overseas when the television in your hotel room shows images of unspeakable horrors occurring in your adopted home city. Towers crumbling, pillows of smoke billowing, soot-covered people weeping in the streets.
When you land in New York, you’re detained by authorities, led into a small room and strip-searched. Later, your tires are slashed. A passing motorist calls you “Osama.” A co-worker tells you the beard you’ve grown is a little aggressive and is making some people nervous.
This is the story that a Pakistani professor named Changez (Riz Ahmed) tells to an American journalist (Liev Schreiber) in Mira Nair’s provocative “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” a story not so much ripped from today’s headlines as providing some context for why so many of these headlines exist.
We go back and forth from present-day Pakistan to New York City just before and after the 9/11 attacks. The young Changez embraced the American dream with gusto, but the Changez of today has returned home to become an influential professor and lecturer harboring a deep resentment toward America that may have festered into full-blown radicalism.
“I am a lover of America,” Changez tells the American journalist (who is named Lincoln in one of the film’s many relatively small but all too obvious touches). But Changez also tells Lincoln he was impressed by the attacks on America on 9/11, “that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees.”
A radical group in Pakistan has kidnapped a European academic with no known ties to any political movement. He’s just a pawn. Lincoln, whose resume may extend beyond writing books, believes Changez may know something about this and could save the professor’s life. He questions Changez in a café, while rising student tensions boil about in the courtyard just outside. It’s a volatile situation.
As we go back and forth between Changez’s experiences in America post-9/11 and his give-and-take with Lincoln a dozen years later, Nair also gives us some beautiful distractions in the form of Sufi music and a colorful wedding scene. Then there’s the matter of Changez’s romance with that photographer/performance artist named Erica, played by a dark-haired Kate Hudson. Erica’s got a melodramatic back story that seems plucked from another movie and adds nothing to the more pressing events at hand.
More interesting are the parallels drawn between the ruthless determination of Changez’s American boss (Kiefer Sutherland, quite excellent) and the ruthless determination of the radical Pakistani who tries to recruit Changez. Of course Nair isn’t equating corporate greed with political terrorism, but in both cases, the men in charge stress “fundamentals” and try to sink their claws into the souls of the young and the gifted. In both cases, it takes a while for Changez to see the manipulations for what they are.
Strangely enough, the New York sections are often more riveting than the kidnapping/student uprising/rescue mission sequences, perhaps because we’ve seen more films about modern-day terrorism than the ways in which life changed so quickly and so drastically in the States in the fall of 2001.
Riz Ahmed, a British actor of Pakistani heritage, gives a movie-star performance as Changez. We believe him as the Americanized immigrant who wants it all, and we believe him as the professor in the café, simmering with anti-American sentiment that could be more than just words. We sympathize with him because of what he endured in post-9/11 New York City, but we loathe what we fear he has become.
Deliberately ambiguous, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” provides just enough answers while leaving us with more than enough questions. It’s a film that demands discussion afterward.