'Road to Guantánamo' takes the easy road

About three-fourths of the way through the new film "The Road to Guantánamo," a detainee is gently awakened by a whispering American soldier. Keep still, very still, the soldier warns.

The groggy prisoner struggles to comprehend what is happening. As the camera pans across the detainee's cage, a large tarantula comes into view near his bare foot. With a quick stomp, the guard crushes the spider under his boot. Both men offer sighs of relief.

The episode takes less than 30 seconds, but it is significant because it is the only scene in the 95-minute film that casts the United States and its soldiers in a positive light.

"The Road to Guantánamo," opening in limited release Friday, is billed as the story of three British citizens of Pakistani heritage who endured more than two years in the US military's terrorism detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The docudrama offers a riveting and disturbing portrait of American brutality that was officially sanctioned. Intelligence officials suspect the men are members of Al Qaeda, but the British citizens deny any involvement and say they went to Afghanistan to render humanitarian assistance to fellow Muslims. In an attempt to learn the truth, US officials try to break the men physically and psychologically through coercive and dehumanizing tactics, including shackling them to the floor in painful positions for hours in a dark room with disorienting strobe lights and blaring rock music.

Except for the tarantula scene, most Americans who view this film will not recognize themselves in the celluloid mirror director Michael Winterbottom holds up for public inspection. Revulsion is the director's goal. And in certain circles, the anti-American thrust of the work will be more than enough to generate applause from audiences.

The film, which won the Silver Bear award at the 2006 Berlin Film Festival, employs a combination of dramatized recreations, genuine news clips, and on-camera interviews with the three detainees. The effect lends the work a strong flavor of factual reporting.

But make no mistake; this is not a neutral account. The film is shot in color but its content is almost entirely black and white. The British citizens are portrayed as naive, well-meaning innocents who stumble unknowingly into a war zone. The American and British interrogators who disbelieve these assertions are portrayed as idiots, bigots, and bullies. This is the weakest aspect of the film. It is here that Winterbottom appears to be most manipulative of his subject matter and ultimately of his audience.

There is no effort in the film to explore the political or religious views of the three men. We learn they have police records in Britain, but we know surprisingly little about their character. What would motivate a person to travel to sections of Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban and Al Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks?

The film is devoid of broader political context, with only a passing reference to the 9/11 attacks and the seething sentiment of many Pakistani Muslims as US and British bombs began falling in Afghanistan. There is no explanation of how the three British citizens were able to gain safe passage through Kandahar – the Taliban and Al Qaeda stronghold – without drawing scrutiny as possible spies. Or how they were able to move freely among Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in the besieged city of Kondoz.

American interrogators suspected that anyone who would risk his life under such circumstances must be motivated by a strong commitment. But the filmmakers dodge this reasonable question.

"The Road to Guantánamo" could have been a nuanced, shades-of-gray documentary about the serious moral and other challenges of sorting out guilt from innocence in the war on terror. But that would have involved making some Americans look human, and it would probably have taken some of the sheen of innocence off the three "lads" from Britain. And that, in turn, might have reduced the film's primary achievement – a powerful sense of revulsion at US tactics.

Revulsion can be an effective tool in exposing wrongdoing. But in the murky confrontation between militant Islam and the West, truth will always be the better road to freedom.

Monitor news reporter Warren Richey visited Guantánamo while the three men in the film were being detained there. The movie is rated R for language and disturbing violent content.

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