It’s a mistake to think that The Kite Runner, based on the best-selling book of the same name, is yet another entry in the current trend of setting films in the middle-east in order to give then some sort of social importance. As directed by Marc Forster, The Kite Runner is instead a rumination on friendship, loyalty and redemption which uses the background of Afghanistan to illustrate rather than define those attributes.
Which isn’t to say Afghanistan isn’t important, but do not expect a history lesson. Forster and writer David Benioff focus more on the plot of Khaled Hosseini’s novel rather then the deeper implications of the Russian invasion, subsequent expulsion (as detailed in Charlie Wilson’s War, also out now) and the rise of the Taliban. There is no overt political or religious agenda in the film and this works to its advantage.
Amir (Khalid Abdalla), in 2000, is a thirty-something Afghan refugee and a writer living in the Bay Area. He gets a phone call telling him he needs to come home and so we are sent on a journey into the past twenty years, back to 1980 before the fall of Kabul to the invading Soviets. Amir is now a privileged twelve year old (Zekeria Ebrahimi) who is more interested in books and stories than being the tough guy his father, Baba (Homayoun Ershadi), wishes he would be.
Enter Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada), the son of the house servant. Hassan is Amir’s only friend as well as his defender amongst the street bullies. The two share a brother-like bond until Hassan makes the ultimate sacrifice (this is the rape scene which has been over-reported in the media and is handled very tastefully in the film) for his friend and master. From that point onward, Amir becomes a haunted figure. He pushes Hassan away and not long after, in an effort to avoid the invasion, emigrates with his father to Northern California.
Over the course of the next twenty years, we follow Amir as he negotiates America and the Afghan culture which has found itself ghettoized in a new land, led by fellow refugees. It isn’t until we come back to where the film started, with the now adult Amir getting a phone call from his old family friend telling him he is needed back home, that Hassan needs him. Upon his return, Amir discovers it is not Hassan himself who is in need of aid, but Hassan’s son. He also discovers family secrets and old enemies who are now in positions of power and he must deal with it all before returning home an obviously changed man.
As a film, there are several places where Forster and Benioff could have made a bigger comment on the plight of the Afghan refugees and the personal toll of the Soviet invasion, but instead choose to focus on more universal themes. Amir is a coward and his lack of strength in times of crisis affects his whole life. Even on his return to Kabul, he fails to redeem himself in his own eyes and if you haven’t read the book, where Hosseini allows a deeper look into the psyche of his main characters, these scenes may come as a large disappointment. They are not typical of a Hollywood film and may leave the viewer with a sense of unease and an incomplete resolution.
Overall, The Kite Runner does what it sets out to do. It tells a personal story against an epic back drop and it does it quite well.
(Originally published at FirstShowing.net)