This year, audiences have largely stayed away from movies dealing with the Middle East, but I hope that wonít be the case with The Kite Runner. While it is set mostly in Afghanistan and does address the negative impact the Taliban has had on that country, this is not a message movie or a political statement. Based on the book by Khaled Hosseini, itís a positive and uplifting story about the kind of interpersonal loyalty that not even a terrorist organization can destroy.
The story revolves around Amir (Zekieia Ebrahimi) and Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada), two young boys living in Kabul. Amirís father is a wealthy citizen who builds an orphanage, even though doing so also means watching corrupt officials embezzle some of the development money. Hassan is the son of his long-time servant, and the two boys are close as can be. For fun, they participate in kite-flying competitions, where Hassan is a local whiz.
The nature of their relationship changes when some bullies target Hassan, sexually abusing him in the process. Amir sees it take place, but does nothing because he fears getting the same treatment from his friendís tormentors. Racked with guilt, he then distances himself from Hassan; while the other boy doesnít know exactly whatís gotten into Amir, his loyalty never waivers.
About halfway through the film, we find Amir as an adult (now played by United 93ís Khalid Abdalla). Having successfully transplanted himself to America, married, and published his first book, he still experiences some guilt over what happened with Hassan. Then he gets a phone call from an old family friend, Rahim Khan (Shaun Toub), who informs him that thereís something he can do to right that wrong from 20 years before. However, it entails re-entering Afghanistan and possibly coming face-to-face with Taliban members. Although his head tells him to forget it, Amir believes he owes it to Hassan to stand up for whatís right now when he couldnít before.
At one level, The Kite Runner is about the changing face of Afghanistan. The early scenes show a fairly normal way of life, with kids running around playing, flying kites, and acting like normal children. Thereís a sense that, despite some problems, itís a place where kids can grow up quite happily. This contrasts significantly with the later scenes in the film, where the Taliban has created an atmosphere of dread and fear, and where not even the most innocent child is safe from unspeakable atrocities.
All that stuff works, but deeper down, this is a very affecting story of friendship, remorse, and penance. Amir lives with the secret of knowing that he did not help his closest friend in a moment of dire need. More than that, he turned his back on that same friend rather than admit his own shortcoming. Living his life and seeing the change in his homeland causes him to re-evaluate his actions, so that when the opportunity presents itself, he feels compelled to make amends.
There is a scene early on where Amirís father laments his sonís passiveness to Rahim Khan. ďA boy who does not stand up for himself becomes a man who will not stand up for nothing,Ē he says. The Kite Runner is ultimately about how Amir belatedly learns to stand up for something. The screenplay by David Benioff moves this idea along believably; it never feels like a story contrivance, and it contrasts in opposite proportion to how Afghanistan as a nation changes.
Director Marc Forster (Monsterís Ball, Finding Neverland) keeps the focus on the personal issues. Like I said, thereís really no political message here. Some observations, perhaps, but no blatant message. He elicits natural performances from the young actors and handles the sexual abuse element with admirable restraint. Forster is an interesting filmmaker, able to cross genre boundaries and tell a wide arrange of stories. (He also made the thriller Stay and the comedy Stranger Than Fiction.) The Kite Runner represents another triumph for him in the way heís able to take a story that is set on a broad canvas and turn it into something intensely personal.
Despite what you might expect Ė what I expected, even Ė this movie is filled with hope. It does not leave you depressed or angry; instead, it leaves you feeling optimistic. The Kite Runner believes that one person can change for the better, can atone for mistakes, and can make a positive difference in the world. And if one person can heal like that, surely a whole country can as well.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Kite Runner is rated PG-13 for strong thematic material including the rape of a child, violence and brief strong language. The running time is 2 hours and 8 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: The Kite Runner
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