If you believe what the blockbusters tell you, evil comes from distant places and disturbed individuals out of touch with reality. Anyone paying attention to the way the world works knows that it’s more complicated than that. The harsher truths about enemies that come from within, and terrible behavior that results from calculation and ideological convictions, tends to get sidelined by escapism for obvious reasons. Roland Emmerich’s “White House Down,” opening next week, features domestic terrorists assaulting the president, but one could just as easily sub that threat for the North Korean baddies in last month’s similarly-plotted “Olympus Has Fallen.” Even when the bad guys hail from our turf, they’re still essentially outsiders.
“The Attack,” which opens today, offers a sobering answer to such a reductive perspective. Ziad Doueiri’s wrenching account of an established Palestinian doctor whose wife turns out to be a suicide bomber unfolds with a mixture of grand tragedy and intrigue. Doueiri, who wrote the screenplay with Joelle Touma, constructs a fascinating twist on the tropes of a detective story, as the heartbroken Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman, in an extraordinary performance that shifts from fury to melancholy over the course of the movie) travels from Jerusalem to the Palestinian territories in search of his wife’s collaborators.
Unlike “Sleeper Cell,” misconceived Showtime series partly directed by Doueiri, the sense of right and wrong clearly established from the outset doesn’t hold tight throughout. (That show revolved around an Islamic FBI agent camouflaged among aspiring terrorists, but “The Attack” rejects any clear delineation between right and wrong.) While Amin struggles to understand how his wife of several years could have kept her revolutionary interests secret from him the whole time, it’s clear that in order to comprehend her motives, he must first reckon with the emotions prohibiting him from investigating the past.
Doueiri shows tremendous empathy for the transition his main character goes through. Appearing in every scene, Amin is at first in denial about his wife’s behavior, and as she’s absent from the movie aside from a handful of flashbacks, viewers are trapped with Amin’s mournfully uncertain state. Assailed by a trenchant Israeli policeman who hits up the bereaved doctor for intel, Amin at first seems like a victim; with time, coming to terms with the way his career subsumed his personal life, he starts to understand how much of his wife’s life he failed to understand during crucial stages in her transition. Watching him cope with his role in her evolution into underground rebel, it’s impossible not to get swept up in his psychological turmoil — as well as the intellectual process that it instigates.
Adapting Yasmina Khadra’s novel, Doueiri crafts an atmospheric story in which the gradual revelation of new information allows the movie’s themes to gradually reveal themselves. Amin’s cozy existence in Jerusalem, where he’s first seen celebrated by his Israeli peers, at first positions him as a peacekeeper — but his journey into a darker realm of Palestinian discontent complicates his own understanding of his role by interrogating the pratfalls of complacency. Despite a few moments of overindulgent sentimentalism, Doueiri embraces the story’s dark side. In a final showdown between Amin and a Muslim revolutionary possibly involved in his wife’s demise, the full weight of Amin’s paradoxical life bears down on him. Their terse, aggressively philosophical exchanges mark some of the best scripted drama release so far this year.
More than that, “The Attack” reckons with the very idea of defining narrative in terms of heroes and villains. That’s a crucial lesson in a time when mainstream cinema increasingly capitalizes on that divide. The conflict in “The Attack” is less about the reasoning behind immoral behavior than the problems involved in any cursory understanding of it. Beyond the wrenching specifics, the movie provides an ideal means of pushing beyond questions of which stories should be told in favor of the more vital issue involving the assumptions behind them.
Criticwire grade: A-