It's possible, but not likely, that a film like Joseph Castelo's The War Within (2005) would have been conceived before 2001---and though it's not as if terrorist activity began in that year, a profound sense of reflection for the tragedy runs deep in the film's veins. It's certainly not the first drama to do so, but the main difference lies in the story's perspective: as seen from the eyes of a man who aims to destroy Manhattan's Grand Central Station, it's obvious that The War Within needs to choose its words carefully. Luckily, it does. This isn't the only line it treads carefully, especially once the difference between understanding actions and supporting them becomes clear.
Our protagonist is Hassan (Ayad Akhtar, also credited as co-writer), a young Pakistani man arrested and tortured for his suspected ties to terrorist activity. The War Within never really dwells on Hassan's guilt or innocence---or most other aspects of his past life, for that matter---but chooses to focus on the present instead. His grueling torture lasts for roughly three years: he's shown pictures of his murdered brother, beaten and strangled, but doesn't seem to have the information his captors seek. Finally, Hassan is released. Obviously, such a lengthy amount of captivity can change a person, guilty or not. Our protagonist takes the low road, aligning himself with a local terrorist cell planning to destroy the busy New York terminal.
Hassan's personal conflicts deepen as he spends time with an old friend and his family, who enjoy a modestly successful lifestyle in nearby New Jersey. His hatred for American government is seemingly justified due to his mistreatment, yet the newly-radicalized Hassan still seems reluctant to lump all American citizens into one category. The family, of course, remains unaware of Hassan's quiet agenda at first, thinking their old friend is in town for an important career opportunity. As members of the terrorist cell are captured during various stages of the plan's execution, his conflicts deepen even further. Luckily, The War Within remains tense and uncompromising during its brief 93-minute lifespan, showing us a much different side of an all-too-familiar reality.
It's certainly not "too soon" for a film like The War Within, not to mention any other level-headed meditation on tragedy. Even so, Castelo's film will undoubtedly be dismissed by those unable to keep an open mind, but it's more of a cautionary tale than a genuinely controversial one. Akhtar's solid performance as Hassan helps anchor the story from start to finish---and even though it's nearly impossible to respect many of his actions, it's a bit easier to understand them. When we see why he becomes a more focused, vengeful version of his former self, certain layers of the film become easier to stomach. With that said, it's still a tough film to watch: for some, it'll still be "too soon". When viewed with an open mind, however, viewers will be faced with a challenging, personal film that doesn't pull any punches. For that alone, The War Within is one of the better post-9/11 films you're likely to see.
Presented on DVD by Magnolia Entertainment, The War Within has undergone a slight packaging change but remains identical to the previous release. It's still blessed with a solid technical presentation and a few key bonus features, rounding out the potent main feature nicely. Though it may still fly under the radar of most audiences by year's end, it's a surprisingly moving film that deserves a wider audience. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio, The War Within features a pleasing transfer that gets the job done. Drawbacks are minimal but apparent, as darker scenes often appear slightly murky and flat. Grain is kept to a minimum, while the generally warm color palette looks accurate and properly saturated. Daytime scenes---especially those shot outdoors---are clean and clear, free from dirt, blemishes and digital eyesores (including edge enhancement, combing, etc.).
The audio presentation is roughly of the same quality, as the included English 5.1 Dolby mix boasts clear dialogue and mild surround activity. Unfortunately, only Spanish subtitles have been included with the main feature, though Closed Captioning is available if your television supports it.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
The basic animated menus (seen above, presented in 1:33:1) offer a simple layout and easy navigation, though they're a bit generic in design. The 93-minute main feature has been divided into 18 chapters, while no discernable layer change was detected during playback. This one-disc release is housed inside a standard black keepcase and includes no inserts.
The extras may be slim in number, but they're all worth a look. First up is an Audio Commentary with writer/director Joseph Castelo and writer/actor Ayad Akhtar. Both participants do a fine job of filling the feature-length session nicely, offering a solid balance of technical and personal insight. Those who appreciate the film's many layers will certainly enjoy this track, even if they don't agree with some of the more subtle themes. Next up is a collection of Deleted & Alternate Scenes (8 clips, 20:44), including a different opening sequence and a few interesting subplots. Presented in non-anamorphic widescreen---and unfortunately, without optional audio commentary---these clips appear in finished form and seem to be cut for pacing and consistency, not content. Last but not least is the film's Theatrical Trailer (2:08), also presented in non-anamorphic widescreen.
Tense and dramatic, Joseph Castelo's The War Within offers am intimate, emotional perspective of organized terrorist activity. There's a fine balance of intensity from start to finish, though such an effect may weaken upon repeated viewings. The DVD presentation from Warner---essentially the same release as the original Magnolia disc---does the film justice, offering a solid technical presentation and a few notable bonus features. The continued lack of English subtitles is a mild disappointment, though it's slightly remedied by optional Closed Captioning support (unfortunately, this feature isn't available during progressive scan mode). While new viewers may want to consider a rental first, anyone interested in politically-charged dramas should find The War Within an engaging and rewarding experience. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, mocking passers-by and writing things in third person.