Friday, June 23, 2006

The Road to Guantánamo - Movie Review

The Road to Guantánamo 2006

The prolific British auteur Michael Winterbottom has scored again. And with naught but a few months passing since his sharp and witty movie-within-a-movie antics of “Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story”! This time round he has co-helmed the docu-drama account of the Tipton Three, a trio of British lads whose unfortunate timing and less than razor sharp intelligence ended up entrapping them at the infamous Guantánamo Bay U.S. Military Gulag / Naval Base.

The film uses a technique popularized within the field of documentary: on camera interviews with the actual participants and actors portraying past events that previously went unfilmed. Since the film’s second half is concerned with the systematic imprisonment, interrogation, torturing and brutality that allegedly occurs under the U.S. military’s watch, we somehow doubted the filmmakers would have been allowed to use any actual footage. What emerges from this amalgamation is a striking indictment of the “War on Terror” and its hidden or muffled byways. While we praise Michael Winterbottom for his knowing camera and extremely judicious film editing technique, we must also mention that this time around he gives co-directing credit to Mat Whitecross, his fellow editor.

The Tipton Three made worldwide news coverage in 2004 with their denunciation of . . . you might want to sit down for this one . . . harsh treatment by U.S. soldiers while being held prisoners at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. How the United States came to hold a military base in a country they allegedly denounce as the last bastion of the Communist Power is a much longer and more bizarre story that we won’t get into, but is certainly worth investigating.

The first half of the film concerns their naïve collective venture into a return trip to their homeland of Pakistan for a chum’s wedding. During their relatively brief sojourn back to their mother land, they decide to venture into Afghanistan to check things out and to see if they can offer some help to the suffering populace facing the retribution of the attacks of September 11, 2001. And for many people including ourselves this is the make or break point of the storyline. How any young men, regardless of nationality could be so completely dimwitted to attempt to sneak into what was basically a War Zone replete with apocalyptic daily bombings, is a question we had to ask. The answer is simple. As recounted by the actual Tipton Three, or rather as the audience observes – these three blokes are definitely at the lower end of the intelligence food chain. Slightly higher than a mollusk but still lower than your average goldfish.

Now, normally we stay away from any cinematic retelling of human stupidity, but what makes the first half of this film the most fascinating, riveting and just plain kick ass storytelling is the directing skills of Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross. Their recreations of the events leading up to their capture alongside a Taliban infused convey is nothing short of brilliant. Alternating documentary footage of the war time suffering with their recreation of events – all of it underscored by a pulsating musical score that sets us on edge and continues to underline the consistently perilous landscape. This is the most basic genius of a director duo who knows how to grab us by the privates and hold our attention at breakneck speed.

The feeling, texture and scope of this film makes it by far the best thing to come down the pike this year. The cast of relative unknowns who portray the real participants are uniformly fine in their insipid camaraderie and wide eyed naïveté. The comedy of horrors they encounter once they enter Afghanistan and begin to witness the power of the devastation around them is mesmerizing. Unfortunately for the quartet of young men (Yes, there were four original friends. We will leave it to the viewer to witness how the four became the three.), and even worse for the viewers, once they attempt to return to Pakistan they decide to wing it by latching onto the nearest system of transportation. In this case it is a convoy of vehicles filled to the turban with Taliban rebels. Bad choice indeed.

Once captured by the Northern Alliance, they are turned over to the U.S. military as potentially dangerous terrorists and promptly shipped off to Guantánamo where their days and nights of torture begin. And here is where the film falters. For while we have no doubt that a Naval Base run by young soldiers with only a passing knowledge of the world around them during a “wartime” situation is probably not the getaway island weekend most of us dream about, it is also a sharp shift in storytelling gears that never quite matches up to the first half of the film. Forced to sit chained in a crouching position in the blistering sun while being completely covered head to toe, shoved into a two by two chain link cell with a bucket of water to drink and another as a privy, routinely beaten for daring to utter one syllable, dragged off to interrogations where their denials are met with further physical violence – it not only becomes too much for us, but also begins to lose its steam dramatically.

Perhaps knowing the outcome (after all, the actual men are narrating this tale – it ain’t too hard to figure out they make it out alright.) contributes to diminishing our edge of the seat excitement with the proceedings, or perhaps the scenes of imprisonment and torture point up all too quickly their utter ineptitude in being able to explain their original intentions or motivations. It’s like “Forrest Gump” meets “The Battle of Algiers”. Or perhaps they were indeed terrorists and this is the ultimate shaggy-dog story. We tend to believe the particulars of their case. If for nothing else than to do defend the age old belief that the remarkable notion of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and being an incredible idiot will always get you into trouble.

The film has already garnered much praise for its visceral retelling of the events, and has started to chalk up the awards beginning with its Silver Bear for Best Direction by Messrs. Winterbottom and Whitecross at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. While the second half of the film falters a bit, the first half is so incredible we whole heartedly agree with the Berlin Film Festival's assessment and encourage you to venture forth and spend some time with three blokes who have entered the latest phase of history as sometimes martyrs, oft times idiots. And thank God that after the detailed horrors of the second half, the directors are smart enough to wrap the film up with a surprisingly gentle and emotional ending that is not only fitting, but honest.

If this film has a solid point to make it is probably this. Defending freedom and spreading the notion of Democracy abroad can take some nasty side turns along the way. The question remains: “How far are you willing to sacrifice democracy and freedom in order to protect it?” If we choose to ignore the plight of the Tipton Three, well then we pray on your next vacation on some tropical isle your room service is cold and the cable doesn’t work. Surely that will get Americans riled up enough to investigate the “alleged” goings on at Guantánamo Bay. Bless you all!

Directed by Michael Winterbottom & Mat Whitecross

Riz Ahmed as Shafiq
Farhad Harun as Ruhel
Waqar Siddiqui as Monir
Afran Usman as Asif
Shahid Iqbal as Zahid
Ruhel Ahmed as Himself
Asif Iqbal as Himself
Shafiq Rasul as Himself
Kieran O’Brien – Voice Over

Cinematography by Marcel Zyskind
Film Editing by Mat Whitecross & Michael Winterbottom
Original Music by Harry Escott & Molly Nyman
Production Design by Mark Digby
Special Effects by Mohsen Ruzbahani
Visual Effects by Michelle Camp, Adam Garner & Dan Sollis


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