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Despite shortcuts, 'War Within' horrifies

A pleasant-looking, well-educated East Asian man stands in the center of New York's Grand Central Station. He wears a suit. He's clean-shaven and professional in appearance. His body is wired to explode.

This is the distressingly plausible central image of ''The War Within," a slick shot-on-video drama about a Pakistani suicide bomber (co-writer Ayad Akhtar) suffering a crisis of conscience as he lies low in New Jersey. Some have suggested that a movie seeking to understand, if not sympathize, with the terrorist mind is better off unmade and unseen. I beg to differ. As dramatically naive as it gets, Joseph Castelo's film shows varying sides of the New York immigrant experience and poses the crucial question facing any religious fundamentalist: Do you live for the afterlife or for this life? There are no doubts about where the film stands.

The strongest parts of ''The War Within" deal with the warm Pakistani family by which Hassan finds himself embraced when he arrives in Jersey City. Sayeed (Firdus Bamji), a doctor, thinks his childhood friend has come from Canada for an engineering job interview. Sayeed's wife Farhida (Sarita Choudhury) and their young son Ali (Varun Sriram) happily make room in their lives, while Sayeed's vibrant, Americanized sister Duri (Nandana Sen) dumps her Anglo boyfriend (Mike McGlone) and waits for Hassan to make a move.

In fact, the formerly apolitical student has been radicalized by his torture by shadowy Pakistani police forces and by the death of his brother in a protest rally. Hassan is no longer ''the kid who was crazy about Duran Duran" but a somber fundamentalist working as part of a terrorist cell led by fellow prisoner Khalid (Charles Daniel Sandoval).

When their plan to blow up the bridges and tunnels of New York is foiled, Hassan is ordered to blend in. He takes a job driving cabs for Sayeed's friend (John Ventimiglia, Artie Bucco of ''The Sopranos"). He starts to see the human face of his enemy. Then the call to action comes.

''The War Within" is hampered by a mopey leading man -- there are too many shots of Hassan staring across the Hudson in turmoil -- and by its shortcuts across a fiendishly complex topic. The idea that terrorists are made from the victims of state reprisals is glib; the script doesn't provide motivations for the other terrorists, nor does it convincingly explain Hassan's transformation in the missing three years between his torture and arrival in New York.

On the other hand, the portrayal of the Pakistani immigrant community and its uneasy place in American society is given nuance by Bamji's smart, affable performance. Hassan wants to spend more time with Sayeed and his family, and so do we. Increasingly uncertain duty calls, though, and the details the film provides of how a lonely true believer might try to wreak havoc on thousands of strangers are horrifyingly believable. ''The War Within" avoids easy fear-mongering. That's why it's scary as hell.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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