The paradoxical label of The Reluctant Fundamentalist describes the film’s eponymous lead, a Pakistani man named Changez (Riz Ahmed, from Four Lions) torn between two divergent ‘fundamentals’: a lucrative Wall Street career committed to the virtue of monetary value versus the calling of his comparatively modest native culture, looked down on with suspicion by those belonging to the former camp and returning the distrust in kind. This tug-of-war isn’t exactly new territory for Mira Nair, whose oeuvre contains plentiful sketches of cultural clashes, including most recently The Namesake, in which Kal Penn’s Gogol tries to pacify the duelling pressures of his Indian heritage and contemporary US societal standards.
The film’s titular term applies equally to journalist Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber), who gently interrogates Changez against the clock in the centre of a busy but hushed Middle Eastern café. Lincoln previously wavered in his beliefs; he ardently opposed interventionist policies in the pre- 9/11 world, though upon realising the futility in hoping for a better tomorrow he took a change of heart. Here, his fundamental prejudice against Changez and the rest of the café’s inhabitants attempts to inform our perception of the situation, as Lincoln hangs onto the distinct possibility that the man he’s speaking to is embroiled in the kidnapping of a US academic.
Through the framing device of Lincoln’s interview we retroactively chart Changez’ remarkable ascent through New York’s corporate elite, in an uncomplicated succession of life moments included to showcase the sheer talent and fortitude at his disposal. The nature of the story – economically communicated, being shared as the clock ticks away – bids to justify the traditionally laborious custom of handpicking outstanding moments of a life, with little room left for contemplation outside of the film’s core narrative progression.
As such, Changez’ trajectory is as literary as the source material – the 2007 novel of the same name by Mohsin Hamid – that inspired its conception, its direction as pedestrian as the most middling of biopics, its visuals literally underlined with the subtitles of musical numbers whose lyrics reinforce the characters’ emotional distress. Minor supporting characters exist solely to amplify Changez’ qualities through their isolated reaction shots, or take the opposite route by exhibiting the type of xenophobic prejudice required by the film to firmly stamp its point.
Kate Hudson as girlfriend Erica functions to entail the idea of veiled prejudice, and reinforce the overarching concept of Changez as a Goliath-cum-David in a post-9/11 world that suddenly looks down on him with misgivings, and sideways in fear. Kiefer Sutherland visibly relishes his role as Changez’ employer Jim Cross: a single-minded, dogged disciple of the American Dream. From his first appearance it’s clear as to which professional archetype he effortlessly exemplifies; his office-room seminar on the ‘fundamentals’ of business hammers home the film’s principal moral in a less than subtle way – it’s so vital to that Nair even returns to it by the end in order to help us connect the dots.
Most of the audience guesswork, however, will involve the careful consideration of whether Changez is, in fact, guilty as Lincoln perceives him to be. The film pulls in both directions, allowing us to side with Lincoln one second and retreat from his overly paranoid ponderings the next. Such estimations – akin to fumbling the pieces of a harmless TV murder-mystery – are the only shallow pleasures to fully indulge here, since all of the greater thematic priorities are laid out in clear sight and summarised at the conclusion, with not a single visual nuance to enrich the fabric of the film’s polemic.
As the pivotal instance of the 9/11 attacks are recalled midway through the film, Changez confesses to Lincoln that as he saw the towers fall on that fateful day – and in spite of his devout love for the United States – he couldn’t help but express a sense of awe at the efficiency and ingenuity of the attacks. The admission is startling, intriguing, though unfortunately throwaway; had Nair pursued this fascinatingly perverse human instinct further, there may have been more to read in this character beyond all that we already see of him. As it is, he’s thrown up on the screen fully-formed for our convenience and given to Lincoln to interrogate on our behalf, leaving us with nothing but the scraps.