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The Reluctant Fundamentalist, adapted for the screen by Moshin Hamid (with William Wheeler) from his 2007 novel of the same name, and directed by the visionary Mira Nair, refuses to offer its audience any easy answers. Nor is it willing to get bogged down with the infantile black or white, us vs. them mentality that seems to be fracturing our world further by the second.

What it does however, is provide a firsthand account of the horrors of disenfranchisement and otherness, as seen through the eyes of Changez, a young Pakistani man who comes to America in search of the dream. Despite the presence of an egregiously miscast Kate Hudson, this film is a complex and prescient thriller that is as well acted as it is directed.

The movie begins in present day Lahore, Pakistan, a city as rife with conflict and boiling-over animosity as it is steeped in communal tradition. There, we are introduced to Liev Schreiber’s well-intentioned albeit disenfranchised journalist, Bobby Lincoln, an FBI ally currently drifting between his adopted home and an American life he abandoned long ago for the sake of fighting the good fight against global terrorism. Bobby is snapped back to the reality of his surroundings though, when a close friend and mentor is kidnapped by an extremist group and ransomed for the removal of US troops from Pakistan. Desperate to save the American Professor, our intrepid muckraker is led to a young Muslim intellectual and Pakistani nationalist, Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed), who may or may not have had something to do with the crime.

To prove his innocence, Changez professes his love of America to Bobby and then recounts the tale of his own own journey to The US, embarked on as a means of escaping his family’s crumbling fortunes in Lahore. Growing up on a diet of Western Culture, he and his actress-sister have experienced a world very different from that of their mother and father, who were children of the still polarizing 1947 partition that divided Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. Still living with the ramifications of this monumental break nonetheless, Changez dreams of escaping the provinciality of Pakistan for the lure of America. Soon, his fantasies become a reality, as the intelligent, ambitious student secures himself a scholarship to Princeton where upon arrival, he is quickly seduced by a whole new world of country clubs, rolling greens, and jaunts to Manhattan.

Upon graduating, the opportunity to finally restore his family’s wealth and honor, and move into the Big Apple comes when Kiefer Sutherland’s, Jim Cross, a managing operator at upscale firm Underwood Sampson, hires the young prodigy as a financial analyst.From there, it’s not long before Changez is living a lifestyle that he’s only dreamed of, complete with his own Aryan from Darien (Kate Hudson), a corner office, and the guilt of having maximized profits by minimizing thousands of jobs, particularly in the third world. Question is, would this crises of conscious, not to mention the Arab hatred unleashed amid the horrific aftermath of 911 New York be enough to make the once optimistic pro American a murderous terrorist?

Perhaps, but Nair’s film is actually more about the questions it raises than the action it details. How does our world breed such extreme fundamentalism? Can we ever truly be allowed to define our own story? Who exactly is the other? These are intricate, metaphysical queries over which debate and reflection seem more needed than ever. 

Necessity aside, the film might play as heavy-handed or didactic in lesser hands than those of Mira Nair, who crafts a fast moving thriller as well, bringing the same lyrical assuredness that she’s shown in visual spectacles like Kama Sutra and Monsoon Wedding to her portrayal of present day Lahore, a city where uncertainty and violence are sadly the daily bread.

The scenes between Khan and Bobby crackle with an in-the-moment intensity while the nostalgia-twinged flashbacks of Ivy League life, and pre-911/economic melt down New York glow with a warm appropriateness. It’s only the romance plot involving a sadly miscast Kate Hudson that finds the talented Hamid, Wheeler, and even Nair a bit tone deaf.

Just about every actor is fantastic, though particularly affecting is Ahmed. Tasked with playing a character that exists as both a flesh and blood person, but also a shadowy enigma, the actor is beyond superb. He takes the audience inside the heart of the dynamic Khan to show the gradual transition from bright-eyed bushy- tailed youth, to paranoid, defensive pariah, and ultimately beyond.

Also great is Schreiber, whose brutish masculinity and casual realness add a sense of urgency to any film he’s in. The presence of Kiefer Sutherland in the role of a by-the-book, no-nonsense authoritarian is at first a bit distracting, but luckily the actor’s talent far outweighs his notoriety. Unfortunately though, the same cannot be said of Kate Hudson whose chemistry with Ahmed is non-existent and who in fact seems to be acting in an entirely different film.

Unnecessary and oddly incongruous romantic subplot aside, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a smart, topical thriller that features first-rate performances, especially from its dynamite leading man, Riz Ahmed. Writers Hamid and Wheeler, along with their superbly talented director, Mira Nair, have fashioned a tense, global tale that is as resonant as it is life-affirming.