In a Lahore cafe, the Pakistan-born, Princeton-educated hero of Mira Nair's The Reluctant Fundamentalist tells an American reporter about his reaction to the World Trade Center attacks. Changez (Riz Ahmed) was as horrified as anyone – but at first there was an instinctive smile, simple "awe," as he puts it, at the audacity of "arrogance brought low." The journalist, Bobby Lincoln, (Liev Schreiber) responds with a glare of pure, restrained fury.
We have seen Changez as a man whose only brutality is this admission of "awe" - it's a moment of ruthless intellectual honesty, not a wish for violence. Bobby has no patience for such nuances and has only Changez' word to go on. Who can blame him for being outraged? And in that confrontation we find the soul of Nair's thoughtful, beautifully textured drama, a story of distrust, misunderstanding and harsh socio-political realities - a mirror of American-Pakistani relations themselves. Like the best politically charged films, though, Changez remains a man caught between two cultures, and not a walking metaphor.
The film begins with the kidnapping of an American professor in Lahore, a hunt by the CIA, and the interview that Changez agrees to. Bobby hopes Changez may help lead to the kidnapped American, and Changez hopes to explain his personal history. As he tells his story and we see it unfold, we also see how Changez came to be considered a possible threat by the CIA.
From Princeton, he is recruited as a financial analyst by a high-powered New York firm. Kiefer Sutherland is wonderfully cast as Changez' self-made, enigmatic mentor, who sees himself in the young man he calls "Changes" until he is corrected. It's Chan - GES, (hard G as in "guess"). In New York, Changez falls for a photographer; Kate Hudson is definitely not wonderfully cast as Erica.
Changez finds himself in the Philippines on business on 9-11, and returns to a changed New York. He is held at airport security on his way home; he is later mistaken for a disruptive homeless man and hauled in by the police. He grows a beard, becomes angry, quits his soulless job and returns to Lahore as a university professor.
But is he a radical fundamentalist? We never see that moment of "awe" resurface. As he tells his students - and Bobby - he had been on his way to achieving the American dream, but what is the Pakistani dream? Whatever the truth about Changez, some of his Pakistani associations are violent; that's enough to keep him in the CIA's sights.
The screenplay by Ami Boghani and William Wheeler is virtually a master class in how to adapt an apparently unadaptable source. Mohsin Hamid's first-person novel is a monologue by Changez told as he sits over tea with a mysterious American. The film turns this narrowly focused, uncinematic fiction into a layered thriller full of Pakistani and American players, from Martin Donovan as a CIA officer to Om Puri as Changez' father, a poet with no use for the business of financial analysts. The novel's open ending - who is the American? is he dangerous? is Changez? – is resolved on screen, the book's ambiguity replaced by layers of mistrust.
Ahmed handles the role of Changez perfectly, keeping our sympathy. And Schreiber is terrific at displaying Bobby's low-boiling anger. The extremely weak thread here is Hudson. Her emotionally-damaged character is drastically changed from the quiet writer in the novel, and not for the better. The new Erica's artsy quirks replace any emotional pull, and we wonder why Changez wants this whiny, self-absorbed woman. Hudson's distractingly fake dark wig simply calls attention to how much she's acting a part that never fits.
That element of the film is so wrong it prevents The Reluctant Fundamentalist from being as perfectly realized as Nair's best work, Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake. And as in the novel, Changez' final recognition of what "fundamentals" mean in America and in Pakistan seems too bluntly stated.
Whatever its flaws, though, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is rich in drama - and like all Nair's films, full of color and music - and resonant with fraught cultural issues. It feels especially timely now, arriving so soon after the terror bombings in Boston and the aftermath of some ugly suspicions aimed at all Muslims. The cold truth, as the film itself reminds us, is that it might have been as timely at any point since 9-11. The film lands in and reflects our changed, fluid socio-political times.