Film Reviews: Wednesday, May 02, 2007
Civic Duty\r\nStarring Peter Krause and Khaled Abol Naga. Directed by Jeff Renfroe. Written by Andrew Joiner. Rated R.
Sorry, Neighbor

An angry white guy mistakes his fear of the Arab next door for Civic Duty.


Spider-Man 3 isn’t the only movie out this week dealing with revenge. Even though the 9/11 terrorists represented only a tiny minority of Arabs, their attacks inspired a lot of fear, rage, and hatred in Americans toward the Arab world. Indeed, our country’s foreign policy since then has been pretty much dictated by those emotions. Hollywood movies have tiptoed around this, and their unwillingness to address the issue is actually somewhat understandable. It’s been left to a few intrepid indie filmmakers to take on this subject, and their efforts have been misguided as often as they’ve been courageous.

Civic Duty isn’t unhinged and rancid like Jeff Stanzler’s Sorry, Haters from last year, but its good intentions are marred by some glaring errors in execution. This thriller stars Peter Krause as Terry Allen, a New York-area accountant whose recent downsizing leaves him cooling his heels at home. That’s when he notices his new next-door neighbor Gabe Hassan (Khaled Abol Naga) doing things he finds suspicious, like throwing out his garbage late at night and accepting packages from other Arab men who visit him. Terry calls the FBI, but when they fail to bust down Gabe’s door with an armed-response team, he takes matters into his own hands.

Krause’s wrong here — he’s too fundamentally good-natured and sane to play an angry white guy, especially one as violent and mentally unstable as Terry turns out to be. The part needed a wirier and more intense actor, someone like (hello!) Kiefer Sutherland. Wouldn’t the irony of that have been so chocolatey and delicious? He isn’t here, sadly, though 24’s Kari Matchett does show up as Terry’s wife, who’s increasingly worried for his sanity. The acting honors here belong to Richard Schiff as the FBI agent whom Terry contacts. The character serves as the voice of reason (the agent’s last name is Hillary), and Schiff is magnificent as he goes from patiently addressing Terry’s concerns to roaring at him about impeding an investigation.

The filmmakers score some points by leaving a few ends loose — why is Gabe apparently stealing envelopes from ATMs? — and making use of Terry’s specific expertise as an accountant, as he comes to suspect Gabe of laundering terrorist money. Yet director Jeff Renfroe takes the movie at too swift a pace; Terry accelerates from zero to crazy in a heartbeat, and we don’t feel his claustrophobia and encroaching paranoia. There’s also an inexcusably cheap twist in the climactic hostage standoff when Terry holds Gabe at gunpoint.

Lately the box-office champ has been Disturbia, the latest in a venerable tradition of movies where the next-door neighbor is up to no good and the nosey, shut-in hero has a front-row seat. Civic Duty makes the opposite point — what if your neighbor’s nefarious doings are all in your head? Our country is currently mired in an expensive and pointless war because an Arab guy posed a security threat that turned out to be all in our heads. This movie could have been a terrific action thriller that spoke urgently to our cultural moment. Instead, it’s a provocative exercise that bites off more than it can chew.

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