America shows two faces to immigrants. More than most places we are a land of opportunity, embracing people from different cultures and celebrating their success. But Americans are still human, and we still have a tribal instinct. Americans still put people into boxes labeled “us” and “them” — especially when we’re afraid, and especially in the aggregate.
Mira Nair illustrates this in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, based on the novel by Mohsin Hamid.
Land of Opportunity
R for language, some violence and brief sexuality
The main character, like the author, is a well-off Pakistani, living in America, having been educated at Princeton. Riz Ahmed plays Changez (pronounced something like “ching-gez”). He parlays his Ivy League education into a career as a financial analyst with a prestigious New York firm. His job is to makes money for big organizations by looking for inefficiencies in smaller subsidiaries. Nair lets the work seem mostly like fat-trimming rather than heartless layoffs, since that’s largely how Changez sees it.
He falls into a relationship with Erica (rhymes with America — played by Kate Hudson), a photographer who lost a serious boyfriend not long ago and needs a little coaxing before warming to Changez. It’s no secret that their relationship hasn’t lasted into the present-day bookending structure (more on that later). Suffice it to say that the details of the breakup play into the movie’s bigger themes of cultural misunderstandings.
Changez’s other important American relationships are his boss Jim (Keifer Sutherland), a slick, polished executive who nurtures Changez’s potential and ambition with gusto; and his friend from day one at the company, Wainright (Nelsan Ellis), who shows that not all work relationships are about work.
This substantive story is bookended and interwoven with a present-day timeline in which Changez has returned to Pakistan to become a teacher. He is seen wearing much more traditional muslim garb, including a hearty beard. He’s in a game of cat-and-mouse with an American named Bobby played by Liev Schreiber, ostensibly a reporter interviewing Changez for a story about a recent kidnapping of an American. But both Bobby and Changez are ambiguously defined. The title suggests that one or both of them has become a radicalized fundamentalist, and an American team of secret agents watches their conversation with great interest.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a very novelistic film. It’s got several well defined characters, deeply explored, all set in interwoven narrative threads. It’s not a masterpiece like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but it’s meaty and well plotted.
Underneath all the plotting are a few ideas: one being the idea of choosing sides, or of having a side chosen for you. This might be one of the film’s weakest points. It doesn’t seem to acknowledge that by seeing things as two-sided we give up on all the subtlety in-between. Schreiber’s Bobby might be the kind of character who sees things in black and white, but Changez seems unlikely to get caught in the simple duality that the movie offers. Still, in the name of drama and pacing, the idea of choosing sides probably works in the film’s favor.
It’s mildly annoying, then, when Nair scolds the audience for stepping into the trap she laid. At one of the film’s turning points, Bobby tells Changez something that he knows about him, which is illustrated with a little scene in the film. Then Changez explains his take on the same facts, Rashomon -like, and we see the same scene played Changez’s way.
The movie is also interested in the duality of America. We welcome success stories like Changez, but, especially after 9/11, many civilians and enforcers — consciously or otherwise — saw any middle easterner as worthy of suspicion. Nair shows us the sorts of insults, inconveniences, and humiliations that some Americans inflicted on their “foreign”-looking neighbors in 2001 and 2002.
I think Nair is trying to make a movie that will spark discussions on these issues. She’s not going for cinematic art, but for politics and social commentary, and in that she succeeds. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a good conversation-starter on race and paranoia. After the Boston bombings (including the false accusations against people with middle-eastern origins), this country could probably use a little healthy discussion.