Along with the obvious practical, political self-interest, there’s an undeniable creepy voyeurism that enters our desire to know what goes on in the mind of a suicide bomber. In The War Within, Hassan (Ayad Akhtar), a former engineering student from Pakistan, with soft eyes and a manner so recessive he isn’t quite there, joins a New York-area terrorist cell that is plotting to detonate a clutch of suicide bombs in Grand Central Terminal. Hassan blames the U.S. for the violent displacement of his Muslim brothers, and he loathes our strip-club sleaze. On top of that, he was captured, and tortured, by Western intelligence forces and has the scars to prove it.
As a psychological profile, Hassan squares with all the information you’ve probably ever absorbed about suicide bombers. In fact, he squares a little too neatly: He’s like a news-magazine article turned into a character blueprint. In New Jersey, he moves in with an old childhood friend whose sister, Duri (Nandana Sen), he clearly has feelings for. The movie is set up as a contest of wills between Duri and Allah: Who will win the battle for Hassan’s soul? The War Within plays effectively off our voyeurism, yet it has such a cloistered, American-eyed view of the nightmare of terrorism that I kept searching for the profound explanation beneath its piecemeal ones.