'Homegrown: The Counter-Terror Dilemma': TV Review

Courtesy of HBO
Plenty that shocks and awes.

An engrossing HBO documentary explores America's counter-terrorist bureaucracy, and the toll it takes.

What price do we pay for peace of mind? That's a question lurking beneath every frame of the new HBO documentary Homegrown: The Counter-Terror Dilemma. Inspired by Peter Bergen's upcoming book United States of Jihad: Investigating America's Homegrown Terrorists and directed by Greg Barker (2013's Manhunt: The Inside Story of the Hunt for Bin Laden), the film takes a tough and troubling look at the systems the United States has in place to prevent terror attacks on American soil—as well as at the people (both government agents and private citizens) those systems affect.

It's clear the overall picture won't be pretty from the opening sequence, which follows retired intelligence agent Philip Mudd as he takes a very early morning run. The images have the same antiseptic sheen, and the music is a similar numbing drone, as in Laura Poitras' acclaimed Edward Snowden doc Citizenfour (2014). And Mudd's heavy breathing, coupled with his half-defiant/half-regretful voiceover about his time spent as a leading counter-terrorism specialist, only heightens the purgatorial air. Though he believes in the righteousness of the actions he took to put a wrench in the works of al-Qaida, ISIS and others, Mudd still can't entirely justify himself. Something continues to eat away at his conscience, and likely always will. (In one powerful and pointed aside, he wonders openly if he should have just been a teacher.)

Mudd's moral dilemma bookends the film, which builds to a climactic meeting between the former government analyst and the family of Ehsanul "Shifa" Sadequee, a young American man accused of supporting terrorism via numerous online forums. Sadequee's story is one of the doc's other primary threads: The U.S. government started watching him when he was just a teenager, and then had him kidnapped and returned to the U.S. in 2006 after he flew to Bangladesh to be married. He was held in solitary confinement until his trial began three years later. Finally, he was sentenced to 17 years in prison, plus 30 years probation, mainly for actions (such as translating, under a pseudonym, various jihadi texts into English) that encouraged terrorist attacks, but did not directly result in any.

Is it right to so harshly prosecute someone's intent to do harm? Or is Sadequee a whole-on victim of the anti-Middle Eastern sentiment (directed even at U.S. citizens) that has been stirred up in the wake of 9/11 and is still stoked to this day? No easy answers, here. Though Mudd himself claims, at one point, that terrorism has "minuscule to near-zero impact" on the lives of most Americans, it's apparent that, for many, fear rules the day. This still shouldn't temper the disgust at the way Sadequee was dehumanized pre-trial, and how both he and his family continue to experience the fallout from his conviction in ways that seem grossly disproportionate to the offense.

There are other complicated stories here as well; the most moving explores the friendship that blossomed between lawyer Nader Hasan and actress Kerry Cahill in the wake of the 2009 shooting at Fort Hood, Texas. Hasan's cousin, Nidal Malik Hasan, was the man behind the gun and Cahill's father was one of the victims shot down. Both navigated immense grief, and in Hasan's case, intense media scrutiny, before joining forces to speak out against violence committed in the name of Islam. It's inspiring to watch them take a mutually principled stand against something so horrific and all-consuming—though the feeling persists that it's a mere drop of hope in a vast ocean of paranoia and pain.

Director: Greg Barker
Producers: John Battsek, Julie Goldman, Greg Barker, Diane Becker
Senior Producer: Nancy Abraham
Executive Producer: Sheila Nevins

Premieres Monday, February 8 on HBO