Since 9/11, the disparity between how much the average American frets about terrorism and the actual possibility of dying from a terrorist attack has been almost comically vast. And yet the absurdity continues, from the threat of grandma's 5 oz. bottle of hand lotion to tiny regional airports reconfigured to look like military outposts. There's a great satire to be made about anti-terrorist paranoia, but the overheated indie thriller Civic Duty goes the opposite route, dealing instead with the suspicions of a man who looks askance at his neighbor. Though the tone goes haywire pretty quickly, the film nicely captures the white noise that keeps America wired—scary reports from 24-hour cable news networks, hyperbolic Presidential soundbites, terror elevations that queasily rise and fall. Under these circumstances, it's easy to see how an unstable mind could see things that aren't necessarily there.
Cast shrewdly against type, Peter Krause (SportsNight, Six Feet Under) stars as an unemployed accountant who seethes with low-level fury over a world that's done him wrong. When "Middle Eastern-looking guy" Khaled Abol Naga moves into the apartment across the courtyard, Krause has oceans of time to nurture his suspicions that the guy's a terrorist. It all starts when Naga takes his garbage out at 3 am, and poking through said refuse, Krause discovers letters from a Muslim organization that, gulp, has sections on its website written in Arabic. Things escalate when Krause witnesses Naga consorting with other Arabs at a copy center and later finds suspicious beakers and tubing in his apartment. Krause tries to convince his devoted wife (Kari Matchett) and a skeptical FBI agent (Richard Schiff) that his neighbor could be a threat, but he succeeds only in raising concerns about himself.
In a bow to thriller convention, Civic Duty focuses too heavily on the is-he-or-isn't-he-a-terrorist question, which is pretty much a non-starter as mysteries go. (One hint: Terrorist organizations rarely send checks on company letterhead.) Shooting in digital video, director Jeff Renfroe needlessly amps up the proceedings with jittery camerawork, jump cuts, and other technical hiccups meant to disorient the audience. All that flash serves to prop up what's in essence a one-act play, constructed around a political message that's telegraphed from the start. A hint of ambiguity sneaks into the conclusion, but the big reveal seems beside the point.