It takes a special kind of heartlessness not to be moved by moments in The Kite Runner, Monsters Ball director Marc Forster's adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's bestselling novel. Set across several tumultuous decades in Afghanistan and America, the film captures both recent political tragedies and acts of child abuse that know no national bounds. But it also takes an unusual amount of guilelessness not to be a little suspicious of it as well. It's not that these horrible things don't happen. If anything, The Kite Runner pulls some punches in depicting the horrible things that can happen to kids when everyday prejudice gives way to political turmoil that in turn gives way to religious extremism. It's not the message but the means of delivery that gets in the way.
Beginning the film as a child of privilege and ending it as an exile, a character named Amir serves as the focal point. Played as a child by Zekeria Ebrahimi, he enjoys as carefree an existence as any kid in 1978 Kabul can. He's practically joined at the hip by best friend Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada), the son of his well-to-do father's Hazara servant. Together they take in matinees of The Magnificent Seven and engage in the city's spectacular competitive kite festivals. But after Amir witnesses Hassan being beaten and raped and fails to intervene, he starts to shun his loyal friend out of shame. That shame hardens into a crippling guilt that follows him into his new, expatriate life in America (where he's played by Khalid Abdalla), but when he receives a phone call from Pakistan, he's given an unexpected chance to set things right.
Though it shifts gear from a film about the delicate relationships between children of different backgrounds to an immigrants-in-America story to finally an awkward action film, each part of The Kite Runner confirms Marc Forster as the Michael Bay of movie dramas. Every gesture here is designed for maximum impact, and the effect grows deadening after a while. It's no wonder that Forster's best film, Stranger Than Fiction, is partly about the machinery that lets narratives move us. It's a subject he knows well, but here the knowledge does him a disservice. It's okay to be manipulated, so long as you don't feel the strings being pulled. Here the tug is constant, and constantly distracting.