Practically no other nation's modern history has been so rife with grief and shattered expectations as that of Afghanistan; a fact utilized to maximum effect by Marc Forster
in his adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's book club blockbuster The Kite Runner. Starting in the relatively chaos-free years before the Soviet invasion and concluding in the middle of the Taliban's theocratic lockdown, the film manages the difficult task of tracking massive historical upheavals while keeping tightly focused on the people forced to live through such tumultuous changes.
The character who ties the whole narrative together is Amir, a spoiled brat of a kid who turns into a spoiled writer as an adult only to grudgingly submit himself to the rigors of becoming a hero near the conclusion. In the mid-1970s, the young Amir (Zekiria Ebrahimi) lives with his prosperous father, or Baba, in a nice house in Kabul. Amir lives a pretty decent and sheltered life, his best friend, the fiercely loyal Hassan (played with emphatic nobility by Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada), is the son of the family's head servant, and will do practically anything Amir wants. His Baba is a proudly educated and modern man, with his jazz records, turtlenecks, bottles of liquor, and well-kept Mustang; the last particularly beloved by the Steve McQueen-worshipping boys. Amir and Hassan are an excellent team when it comes to the fascinating Afghan take on kite-flying, where pairs of boys get into high-altitude duels, trying to cut the strings of their opponents kites (the sport was later banned when the Taliban came to power). Article continues below
The trouble in paradise comes in the form of one of those petty tragedies of which such novels are made: after watching Hassan get brutalized in an alleyway by some teen punks, Amir (already jealous of how much respect Baba gives Hassan, and perversely mistrustful of Hassan's egoless love) not only does nothing to stop it, but gets Hassan's family discharged after falsely accusing him of stealing. Not long after, the Soviets invade, and Amir and his father decamp for California, leaving their house in the possession of family friend Rahim Khan (Shaun Toab).
At this point of the story, Amir is a powerfully despicable coward of a character, and though his edges soften later through a maturity of a sort, the stains left by his childhood behavior are never quite eradicated. Filling the gap for the audience in the meantime is Baba, personified in a stupendous performance by Homayoun Ershadi (Taste of Cherry), who plays the father as a mensch's mensch, the kind of guy who literally places himself, unarmed and without a thought, between a Kalashnikov-wielding Russian soldier and a woman the soldier is intent on raping. Next to this elegantly moralistic figure, Amir can't help but shrink. Years later in California, a college graduate yearning to become a writer, Amir (played as an adult by Khalid Abdalla) still seems the palest shadow, all his life's energy sucked away by the guilt of what he did and what he allowed to happen in the past. Even when he's offered the chance to redeem himself by returning to the homeland -- the voice on the phone says, memorably, "There is a way to be good again" -- Amir is never able to become the hero that this film, stocked full as it is with villains of the worst stripe, so needs.
At his best, Forster can be a director of powerfully revelatory emotions, even in roughly constructed works like Monster's Ball. In The Kite Runner, those gifts are put to good use as Forster guides his fantastic cast (who have been little seen in Hollywood, except for Toab and Abdalla's brief roles in Crash and United 93
, respectively) through some heavily emotional territory. But Hosseini's story is one that relies heavily on gimmicky turns in the action leading toward teary crescendos of the sort which Forster indulged in to excess in Finding Neverland. Now, it must be said that these kind of tear-stained climaxes are much more earned here than in that previous bauble of a film, given the weighty historical panorama backgrounding everything. But for the evocative performances and the stunningly captured and severe beauty of the landscape (western China standing in for Afghanistan), by the end one feels tired and more than a little manipulated, like one of those kites malevolently jerking through the thin, cold air over Kabul.