Very much a movie that examines the seismic shift towards fear and xenophobia that took place in the United States and elsewhere around the world in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11, 2001, The Reluctant Fundamentalist explores how this reaction only served to ostracise and radicalise many who, until that time, had been impassioned in their support of this land of opportunity. Through one man’s story, the film reflects the broader experience for many foreigners living in America at this time.
The film opens with Changez (Riz Ahmed), a Pakistani academic sitting down with American journalist-cum-operative Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schrieber) and recounting his experiences in America before and after the 9/11 attacks and how the shifting political and social paranoia ultimately resulted in him turning his back on a career and a country for which he held a deep affection. Told in flashback, the film opens with Changez heading to Princeton University and subsequently securing a job as a financial analyst on Wall Street. Whilst his family doesn’t approve of his career choice, Changez embraces the American lifestyle and quickly finds himself on the fast track to even greater success, falling into a relationship with photographer Erica (Kate Hudson) along the way.
However, following the World Trade Centre attacks, Changez finds himself a target of suspicion at every turn. He is strip-searched at airports and arrested by street cops because he looks vaguely like some other person of middle-eastern ethnicity. In the wake of these terror attacks, everybody who does not look ‘American’ becomes an object of suspicion and for Changez, the American Dream quickly becomes a nightmare. He returns to Pakistan, secures a position as a university lecturer, becomes implicated when a colleague is kidnapped and subsequently murdered and finds himself in the sights of American intelligence agencies. In adapting the novel by Mohsin Ahmed, Director Mira Nair has also drawn on her own experiences to shape her examination of the distrust and paranoia that became endemic in America after 9/11.
The final portion of the film centres around growing unrest in Pakistan as a result of the kidnapping of a university professor and the role that Changez may, or may not, have played in it. As Bobby probes Changez for information about the whereabouts of the hostage, the roles, relationships and motivations of various characters become somewhat blurred and it is difficult to know how Changez is implicated in these events, if at all. Ultimately, the film ends amidst the frantic extraction of Bobby from the maddening crowd.
Riz Ahmed is terrific as Changez, while Schreiber perfectly inhabits the tired, conflicted Lincoln. However, Kate Hudson seems somewhat miscast as Erica, a character whose behaviour is quite bizarre at times. To be fair, it is hard to imagine anybody presenting this character in a way that might elicit sympathy from an audience given her strange behaviours and complete lack of sensitivity. The rest of the cast, which includes Keifer Sutherland and Martin Donovan, are fine and, from the opening moment when we see a spectacular overhead of Central Park, the film is shot very well and presents the various international locations very authentically.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is definitely worth seeing if for no other reason than to simply watch a film that is entertaining and engaging. However, the experience is much enhanced by the fact that the story remains very relevant in Australia today as we continue to marginalise and demonise those people whose appearance, culture or ethnicity is somehow different from what the vocal minority deem to be ‘Australian’.