What would cause a young, bright immigrant, seemingly well adjusted to America, to turn against his adoptive country in an act of violence and terror? It is a question we are asking about the Boston Marathon bombing.
It is also the question posed in "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," film based on the 2007 novel of the same name, as an American journalist (or so we think) confronts a firebrand Pakistani professor tied (or so he thinks) to the kidnapping of one of his fellow professors, an American citizen. In both cases, we have just begun to scratch the surface.
Changez (Riz Ahmed), a lanky academic who is well liked by his students, meets Bobby (Liev Schreiber), a beefy New Jersey native, in an ominous Lahore, Pakistan, tea house as protests spurred by the kidnapping brew outside.
Through extended flashbacks, Changez explains why he left Pakistan for America 10 years earlier, only to return to Pakistan and get involved with a suspect campus political group. Partially motivated by the economic descent of his once-noble family, Changez decides to cash in on the American dream. He studies at Princeton, rises to the top of his class and lands a job at a premiere financial analyst firm in Manhattan.
Early in his recounting, Changez's boss and professional mentor Jim (Kiefer Sutherland) poses a challenge to Changez and his fellow new hires: determine the value of a hypothetical company that has invented the technology to teleport people across the world. Changez gives the clever answer that foreshadows his own fate: It's worthless, because no mother would allow her children to use a machine that dissembled their bodies into teeny, tiny particles.
What follows is the disintegration of Changez's own admirable character, as he fails to successfully make the transition from Pakistan to America. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks disrupt his assimilation, as Changez encounters unrelenting xenophobia, even as a handsome, well-dressed financier.
But his immediate reaction to the attacks (a controversial scene taken directly from the book) suggests post-9/11 bigotry is not singularly to blame. Nor is the abandonment of his American girlfriend, the alluring but flighty artist Erica (Kate Hudson), who also happens to be the niece of the head of Changez's firm.
Though bookended by the suspenseful sequences typical of an international thriller, the real tension in "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" lies in the dance between Changez and Bobby, each trying to procure the truth about the other's identity and motives. Changez recalls the misgivings that led him to quit his high-paying, cutthroat job to move back to Pakistan to teach. He defends the philosophy he is now espousing to his students and denies any connection to the terrorist act at hand.
Bobby, meanwhile, reveals his ties to the kidnapping are more than just journalistic, and the conversation escalates into which torn transplant – the American or the Pakistani – will show his hand first. Through their dialogue, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" tries – with some but not total success – to draw surprising parallels between American capitalism and Islamic extremism, as well as between Bobby and Changez, in their sympathies to both sides of the struggle.
With solid acting by a stellar cast and director Mira Nair's attention to the cultural details of both its Pakistani and American settings, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" excels in tilling the soil that could grow a terrorist. It is a bit ham-handed, however, in showing how the final seed could be planted, brushing over the religious motivations and geopolitical realities with generically familiar rhetoric.
The final resolution falls short of the ambitions of "The Reluctant Fundamental," skirting around the central question the film promises to answer. Nevertheless, Nair deserves credit for taking on a difficult book (the ambiguity of which is partly to blame for the flaws of the film's ending) and offering some insight into an impossible but inescapable question.