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Civic Duty (2007) starstarstarstarhalf star Starring: Peter Krause, Khaled Abol Naga, Richard Schiff, Kari Matchett, Ian Tracey
Director: Jeff Renfroe
Rating: R
Category: Thriller

As I watched the unfolding events of “Civic Duty,” where an average American finds himself so caught up in the barrage of information about how to prevent a terrorist attack that he convinces himself that his new, Middle-Eastern-looking neighbor is actually a terrorist, I couldn’t help but think of my friend Adil.

Adil is now an American citizen, but he’s originally from Morocco; he’s an intelligent, well-educated Muslim man who speaks several different languages and has a great sense of humor. (I am assured that the French language track of “South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut” is much funnier than the English version.) In the wake of the events of 9/11, however, man, he was pissed. Some months prior, we had been watching some Hollywood blockbuster or other on television, and when the film’s villain was revealed, he immediately erupted, “Oh, of course the bad guy is an Arab! The bad guy is always an Arab!” He was mostly kidding – you could tell that much from his voice – but you knew it really did bother him a bit. When the news of 9/11 broke, he was completely and totally beside himself, torn between his sympathy for the victims, the affront to his faith by Osama bin Laden (“Tell me, where in the Qur'an does it say to do this?”) and the lingering effect the events would have on his own life. “I am training to be an airplane mechanic!” I remember him saying, "do you think they want an Arab man near an airplane now?”

Knowing Adil as well as I do, it was easy for me to avoid slipping into the trap of fearing that any and every Middle-Eastern individual could be a terrorist. But given how we’re constantly bombarded with governmental alerts, news reports, and even a Showtime series about how terrorists live among us and could strike at any moment, the actions of the lead character in “Civic Duty” don’t seem nearly as paranoid as they really ought to…which is pretty disconcerting, when you think about it.

Peter Krause (“Six Feet Under”) plays Terry Allen, an accountant who’s just found himself out of work and with a lot of time on his hands. When not putting together and sending out a seemingly-endless series of cover letters and résumés, he spends his time either in front of the computer or sacked out on the couch, watching television. With his mind stuck with little to keep itself occupied, Terry observes his new neighbor (Egyptian actor Khaled Abol Naga) moving in, notes some unusual behavior, and his imagination begins to run wild with suspicion. Terry’s wife (Kari Matchett, “Invasion”) is appalled at her husband’s behavior, which she comes within a hairsbreadth of calling racist, but he’s too caught up in his concerns to give up, going so far as to call the FBI and report his fears to an agent (Richard Schiff, “The West Wing”).

Director Jeff Renfroe has created a tense, nail-biter of a psychological thriller, one where a man begins with a potentially legitimate concern, then finds the whole thing snowballing out of control…but by then, of course, it’s too late to turn back. The cinematography and unique choices in camera angles provide a remarkable job of capturing Krause’s desperation as he grows ever more convinced that his suspicions are correct, even as everyone else finds themselves increasingly uncertain as to just how much sanity still lies behind his eyes. And, yet, despite the look of madness in Krause’s eyes, the sights and sounds that have him so convinced of his neighbor’s guilt…well, basically, he’s not stretching very far to come up with his theory, which is possibly the most disturbing bit of all. “Civic Duty” presents the viewer with a quandary: at what point is it okay to stop being politically correct and concede that, yes, this Middle-Eastern person could actually be a terrorist? Thankfully, the film provides a satisfying conclusion which will, without giving anything away, keep members of both the left and right wings from blowing a gasket.

“Civic Duty” was screened in the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival, which begs the question as to why it hasn’t made it to proper national release yet; Krause is a familiar face, and this smacks of film that could, via word of mouth, become a huge hit. Even if it makes it no farther than your local art house theater, however, be sure not to miss “Civic Duty.” It’s the kind of movie that really makes you stop and think…and lord knows we don’t have enough of those these days.

~Will Harris

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