Both the title and the trailer of Mira Nair’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” (now playing in DC at the E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row Cinema) suggest that this will be the story of how a man becomes a fundamentalist: how a young-gun New York financier, humiliated and mistreated after 9/11, turns his back on America and returns to Pakistan to become an Islamic terrorist. This is not the actual story of the film. In a sense the movie has too much story for this summary, and the protagonist, Changez Khan (a changeable, intense Riz Ahmed), gets trapped in the conflicting interpretations by which other people file down his life into intelligibility.
Khan’s family and upbringing are lightly sketched, although his mother is memorably played by Shabana Azmi. His father (Om Puri) is a poet who looks down on the son’s quest for Wall Street wealth and the “creative destruction” of capitalism. Capitalism itself is one of the movie’s two “fundamentalisms,” and its basic insufficiency and wrongness are more or less taken for granted by the film and used to make other points. For example, there’s a point at which one character decides that terrorist violence is wrong because it’s too much like cutthroat capitalism.
Khan initially affirms the capitalist articles of faith, though, and begins his meteoric rise, becoming the youngest man ever named associate at “Underwood Samson.” Everything changes on September 11, 2001, when Khan sits in a Philippines hotel room (he’s gone there to fix up a car company and ends up causing the firing of an entire section of the operation) and watches the second plane hit the towers. On the way back to the States he’s pulled out of line, strip-searched with a clinical and courtesy-free coldness, and returned to his company not as a capitalist but as a “foreign national.” Things spiral downward from there. Khan’s new beard draws suspicion, he’s spat at and menaced, he’s mistaken for a different guy (listed in the credits as “Ranting South Asian Man,” I believe), arrested, and interrogated. His budding–but always a bit creepy–romance with a woman still mourning her deceased ex-boyfriend falls apart. He quits the firm and goes home.
We learn all this and more in flashback, as a story being told by Khan in Lahore to a journalist, Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schrieber), whom he suspects of being a CIA spy. Schrieber looks the part, for sure, extra-slumpy and -jowly in this role. You could picture him wearily breaking up a fight down the local, or wearily buying a girl in 1960s Saigon. The stakes of their interview are high: A professor has been kidnapped, and the CIA thinks Khan was involved. The journalist is offering him a chance to clear his name, but clear is not what Khan wants his story to become. More complicated is what he wants Lincoln to see.
I found several of the story’s twists both startling and, in retrospect, totally believable. When Khan sees the towers fall, he tells Lincoln, he didn’t feel any glee at the deaths, but he admits to a slight thrill at “arrogance brought low”; in a certain sense that’s his own story as well, the Master of the Universe learning how helpless he really is, but the movie doesn’t hammer at or wallow in this parallel.
The New York sections are intensely cliched, cartoonish, which initially annoyed me but which I now think really works, for three reasons: One, this is America; it’s a big country and for any cliche you name there are probably a hundred people who have lived it out. Two, we’re hearing all this from Khan’s own present-tense perspective. Since part of the movie’s point is that perspective narrows story down into interpretation, of course his story should itself feel “off” to someone still embedded in the American POV. And three, it doesn’t really matter, does it? Different awful things could have happened and Khan might still have been left feeling like he had nowhere safe to stand, nowhere left to live as an individual with integrity rather than a geopolitical chesspiece.
The movie’s alternatives to “fundamentalism” are vague. We see scattered phrases on the blackboard when post-New York Khan is teaching, but we never hear him make a sustained argument or even really finish a sentence. The end of the movie offers little hope. At best it hints that exhaustion can bring peace, but that perhaps this exhaustion can only be sustained when it’s backed by religious faith: faith that peace is what God wants.