Early on in the suicide-bomber analysis The War Within, it looks like director Joseph Castelo and co-writer/star Ayad Akhtar are up to something high-concept and contrived. In the film's opening scenes, Akhtar, a Pakistan-born student, is kidnapped off the streets of Paris and flown to a dank prison where he's viciously tortured and questioned about terrorist activity. Three years later, he arrives in New York City a harder, more somber man, ready to join a terrorist cell and carry a bomb into Grand Central Station. For a while, the two timelines play out in parallel, with scenes of Akhtar preparing for the attacks alternating with horrific sequences from his interrogations. Clearly, one event informs the other—Akhtar's prison cellmate Charles Daniel Sandoval becomes his terrorist cell leader, for instance—and it seems Castelo and Akhtar are working toward an ironic and tragic cause-and-effect chain, whereby brutality turns Akhtar into the brute his captors think he is, and immoderate repression of terrorists simply creates more of them.
Instead, the history plotline fizzles out midway through, without clarifying such essential points as who was questioning Akhtar, whether he was innocent, how he left their custody, what he was like before it, and how he concluded that radical Islam and punitive attacks on America were appropriate responses. Instead, The War Within veers into a study of the pressures acting on him—his devout beliefs, his nightmarish past, his observations of the innocents around him, and particularly his relationship with old friend Firdous Bamji, who takes Akhtar in, believing he's in the country for a job interview. Their friendship is particularly poignant because of Bamji's openhearted trust—in America and in authority, but in Akhtar as well. The ease with which Akhtar hides his intentions is chilling; the implied question is, "How well do you really know your friends, neighbors, or even family?" But even eerier is the way Akhtar passes on his beliefs to Bamji's son, even as he seems to be questioning them himself.
The War Within manages a fascinating balancing act by humanizing a terrorist without justifying his actions; he's had staggering wrongs done to him, he honestly believes he's doing the right thing, and he's a more sympathetic figure than Sandoval, who lacks even the courage of his supposed convictions. But that doesn't prevent Akhtar from contemplating abominations. Akhtar brings the character across brilliantly, but his internal battle is murky and obscure, and Castelo gives the film a correspondingly murky, obscure look, with Akhtar spending so much time wallowing in darkness that his ventures into daylight appropriately seem like journeys to another world. The War Within is sometimes too pat and sometimes ragged with omissions and confusions, but it's still a fascinating look outside of that familiar world and into a harsher one, where even the unfathomable has its reasons, which run far deeper than the blithe summary "terrorists just hate freedom."