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19 May 2013

"I Didn't Pick a Side — It Was Picked for Me"

Although there hasn't exactly been a bumper crop of movies out this spring, I am still playing catch up from the two weeks I missed while I was on holiday in April. With The Great Gatsby pencilled in for Tuesday (it's gotta be done), the next film on my list is one that has had a lot less air time. They are, of course, very different movies, although the American Dream is an important theme in both Baz Luhrmann's new film and Mira Nair's The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

At the start of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, an American professor at a Pakistani university is kidnapped. Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber) is a US reporter based in Lahore who is trying to work out what happened. As part of his investigation, he meets a young Pakistani man called Changez (Riz Ahmed), a colleague of the missing American's, who may be involved in the anti-American movement behind the kidnapping. Changez decides to help Bobby, but to do so involves him telling his own story. He asks Bobby to promise that he will listen to the whole story and not just selectively pull out the parts he wants to hear.

Ten years earlier and Changez has just graduated summa cum laude from Princeton, which he attended on a full scholarship. At an interview for one of the most prestigious financial consultancies in Manhattan, he manages to impress Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland), who hires him and eventually learns that his young protégé's name isn't pronounced changes. Changez loves his job and he loves New York. The other trainees like him, despite the fact that he is clearly the boss's favourite, although they are less uncertain when, during a conversation about what they plan to be doing in 25 years' time, Changez announces his ambition to be a military dictator. He meets a talented artist Erica (Kate Hudson), but never manages to get her contact details. Luckily, it turns out that her uncle is a bigwig at Changez's firm and he gets to meet her again. They fall in love, and although Erica has a lot of sadness in her past, they are happy together.

But just when Changez starts to realise his own American Dream, a couple of things happen. First (and we knew this was coming), September 11th happens. Changez is on a business trip at the time, but on his return to the US, he is forced to undergo a full strip search at the airport, and he soon comes to understand that the world he thought he loved—and belonged in—isn't really his world at all. Then, when he goes back to Pakistan for his sister's wedding, he is faced with his father's disapproval of his life in Manhattan and particularly his job. Meanwhile, he and Erica keep fighting about small things and about important things, and increasingly, it seems like they are mismatched. It's not just that they don't have much in common; their world-views and their values sometimes seem completely at odds.

Slowly, Bobby begins to learn more of Changez's true story. We know, of course, that Changez came back to Pakistan, but what was the final straw? And did his formative years in New York really prime him for a life of insurgency, or does he just find the concept of revolution to be interesting academically? Whereas Bobby as a journalist got to pick a side, Changez says that after 9/11, "I didn't pick a side — it was picked for me." And there are other twists in the tale as the hunt for the missing professor and the kidnappers closes in.

I found The Reluctant Fundamentalist to be interesting and thought-provoking, which is no mean feat in a saturated market of post-9/11 movies. Ahmed's performance carried the movie: he was powerful and complex, even if I found it a little hard to believe that present-day Changez was supposed to be 32. The other main cast didn't have a huge amount to do: Hudson's character just annoyed me, and Sutherland's caring capitalist and Schreiber's schlubby hack were almost paint-by-numbers characters. Although I enjoyed Changez's Manhattan flashbacks and their contrast with the Lahore scenes, when the film ended, I felt a good 20 minutes could have been cut without losing anything from the story. IMDb classifies the film as a thriller, but although it was engaging viewing, I wouldn't say I was exactly on the edge of my seat. Reflection on the sociopolitical and moral nature of contemporary Pakistan and USA isn't quite so catchy, of course.

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