As Michael Winterbottom’s exhilarating, infuriating The Road to Guantanamo comes to an end, one of its protagonists delivers an extraordinarily clear-eyed summation of his horrific experiences as a prisoner held without charges for two years by the United States: "The world," he says, "is not a nice place."
The Tipton Three were young British Muslims, absolutely Western and secular, who went to Pakistan for a wedding just after September 11. On an adventurous whim (which Winterbottom, eschewing character development in favor of a visceral barrage of incident, fails to explain), the boys cross the border into Afghanistan just as the United States bombing campaign is at its most intense. It’s a titanic mistake – what might have looked from a distance like fun (two weeks in a Hemingway novel) is near-starvation and the constant threat of death when seen up close. Herded from city to city, trying to survive attacks from all sides, they are eventually captured by the Northern Alliance.
The boys are accused of working with the Taliban and are shuttled from jail to jail (just evading a faceless death in a mass execution along the way), eventually landing in solitary confinement at Guantanamo. The film suggests a horrific amalgam of Hieronymus Bosch and Franz Kafka. In Afghanistan, bombs obliterate whole villages, friends disappear (or sit stunned at a roadside, drenched in blood), they’re piled into trucks in desert heat with no water or food for days at a time and trigger happy soldiers march them at gun point. In Cuba, they’re held without being charged in a cage for years, tortured, with no access to legal counsel, accused of crimes they did not commit and are unable to refute.
Winterbottom, working here with co-director Mat Whitecross, has perfected his hybrid of documentary and fiction. The film leaps seamlessly from contemporary interviews with the Tipton Three to reenactments of their experiences to news footage from Al Jazeera and the BBC. The fictional material is meticulously crafted to appear caught in the moment: handheld, deliberately rough, the digital video image breaking up in long shot. The film is paced and edited like a news special, and in fact, there is no indication in the film as to whether any of its disparate sections are "real." (In the hands of a filmmaker this adept, the effect is brilliantly effective propaganda, though it gives pause to consider what an equally gifted apologist for the Bush administration might put together using the same methodology.) Its primary aesthetic misstep is the pounding music that overwhelms its opening and closing sections, imparting melodrama and bombast to a story that needs none.
Filling the cast with unknown actors and nonprofessionals, Winterbottom builds on the innovations of In This World, creating a style of acting so naturalistic and uninflected that it plays as documentary. (The interviews with the actual Tipton Three that drive the narrative are, if anything, more actorly than the performances in the reenactments.) As in the previous film, there’s no interest in the psychological details of character that encourage identification.
The characters are briefly sketched in (occasional flashbacks to their lives in Britain serve mainly to underscore their youth and their saturation in Western pop culture – these are "Taliban" who get captured wearing Gap sweatshirts), the better to serve as touchstones for the larger political argument. The film is ultimately less concerned with what drove these three young men than with the criminality of Guantanamo. In fact, the film might be even more effective if the protagonists were Al Queda operatives rather than Westerners caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. It might be easier to make an audience feel outrage that innocents are held without being charged, but it’s just as offensive to hold the guilty in subhuman, extralegal circumstances.
No other director with access to studio distribution channels is doing anything like this. Winterbottom is working so quickly (he’s made twelve films in the last ten years) and in such an array of styles (he’s made literary adaptations, experiments in journalistic fiction/documentary fusion, a Western, broad comedies, quiet domestic dramas) that he’s been on top of the political and cultural zeitgeist for years now. He brings to mind no one as much as Godard in the early sixties, effortlessly tossing off movies that seem both prescient and completely of their moment. The Road to Guantanamo debuts in the U.S. just weeks after a round of inmate suicides has brought international attention to the prison yet again; that such an effective piece of agitprop could be making the rounds at a moment where it could actually effect public opinion is astonishing.