If "Atonement" hadn't already been taken, Khaled Hosseini could have used it as a title for his novel "The Kite Runner," whose protagonist, a privileged 12-year-old Afghan boy named Amir, grievously betrays his childhood friend Hassan. Only years later, as an adult, will he be able to atone through an act of considerable courage.
Hosseini's novel, reputedly the first in English by an Afghan writer, became a surprise best seller, moving millions of avid readers to tears. Director Marc Forster ("Monster's Ball," "Finding Neverland") and screenwriter David Benioff have abbreviated Hosseini's tale, but they've remained true to the book—to both its heart-tugging, sentimental power and its sturdy, symmetrical 19th-century storytelling, as well as its sometimes clumsy melodrama.
The story begins in San Francisco in 2001. The adult Amir (Khalid Abdalla) is now a novelist, having fled Afghanistan with his father after the Soviet invasion. He's a man haunted by his past, and Forster's movie soon transports us back to Kabul in 1978, before the city was decimated, first by the Russians and then by the Taliban. The young Amir (Zekiria Ebrahimi) has grown up in the comfortable, cultured home of his secular, militantly anti-mullah father, Baba (the marvelous Iranian actor Homayoun Ershadi). They are Pashtun, part of the ruling elite, and Hassan (sad-eyed Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada), the son of the family servant Ali, is of the Hazara tribe. The two young friends may be servant and master, but they are inseparable until the day Hassan is beaten up and raped by teenage Pashtun bullies—a horror Amir witnesses and does nothing to prevent. Converting his guilt into enmity, he turns on his friend.
Ershadi's soulful, morally complex Baba is the film's standout performance, but these two memorable Afghan child actors are the heart of the movie. We miss them when they vanish from the story. The grown-up Amir seems rather bland and mopey in comparison. In California, he meets and marries a fellow exile (Atossi Leoni), but these American scenes, which is where the book has been most severely condensed, don't seem to engage Forster as deeply. We got a more vivid picture of the exile experience in "House of Sand and Fog."
Fortunately, Amir returns, in disguise, to Kabul, in an attempt to redress his childhood sins. Forster's re-creation of the war-ravaged city is vivid: a treeless, rubble-strewn landscape where beggars sell their body parts and glum crowds are forced to witness the stoning of adulterers in the public stadium. Amir re-encounters, a bit too conveniently, the pale, sneering teenager who had masterminded Hassan's rape, only now he's grown up to be an oddly swarthy, posturing Taliban villain. If Hosseini's plotting owed a debt to Hollywood, here the debt is repaid, as "The Kite Runner" momentarily transforms itself into a cliffhanging action movie.
"The Kite Runner" isn't subtle, but it allows us to see a country and a culture from the inside: it puts a human face on a tragedy most of us know only from headlines and glimpses on the nightly news. It helps that the Afghan scenes are played in Dari, not English. Forster's solid, unpretentious movie hits its marks squarely, and isn't afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve. Only a mighty tough viewer could fail to be moved.