Sometimes I feel like I begin to belabor this point on this blog, but I am an unreformed liberal. I’m not just a liberal by American standards; my political views would probably be more in line with a European socialist nation than even our most “leftist” American state. With that said, it probably shouldn’t come as any surprise that I wasn’t a big fan of the Bush administration. While I’ve never considered George W. Bush to be patently evil (if for no other reason than I don’t think he’s intelligent enough to be that crafty), his cabinet members and advisers were a whole ‘nother story. The war in Iraq was a colossal mistake and the treatment of many Muslims here at home and around the world was such a blatant disregard for our national values of freedom and liberty that it was nearly sickening. The so-called “War on Terror” is the most obvious example of the rapid erosion of liberties in this nation under the name of “freedom”, and the docudrama The Road to Guantanamo is a chilling expose of one of the most shocking atrocities committed under the mantle of the War on Terror.
Combining archival footage of the initial War in Afghanistan (and later reports on the construction of Guantanamo), interviews with the three real-life protagonists, and dramatic re-enactments of events there were no cameras around to record, The Road to Guantanamo is the heart-wrenching true story of the “Tipton Three,” three British Muslims who were falsely detained and tortured in the Guantanamo Bay prison camp for over two years until their eventual release in 2004. Ruhal Ahmed, Asif Iqbal, and Shafiq Rasul were three British citizens who had traveled to Pakistan weeks after the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. for Shafiq’s arranged marriage to a girl from his family’s Pakistani village. While there, they decided to enter Afghanistan to help out the locals who were shortly to be out of home, food, and virtually all forms of shelter. After the bombing begins in earnest, the Tipton Three try to return to Pakistan but wind up in a village controlled by Taliban forces. When U.S. bombing runs threaten to destroy the town they’re in, the men try to flee with one of the Taliban convoys and end up arrested by Afghanistani forces. When it’s discovered that they’re British and speak English, the men are considered high-priority suspects and spend the next two years of their lives being viciously tortured and questioned by American intelligence officers.
It can be easy to put aside thoughts of human rights abuses when you try to rationalize the existence of a place like Guantanamo Bay. After 9/11, this nation was hell-bent on making sure another incident like that never occurred again. So, to many people, thoughts like “I don’t care if these Middle Eastern men (even if Afghanistan can almost hardly be called the Middle East and has more in common with Pakistan and India than Iran or Iraq) are detained indefinitely and without trial if it means I’m safe” don’t seem radical. You never stop to think about what happens when an innocent man gets caught up in all of this. While it was assuredly quite dumb of Rahul, Shafiq, and Asif to go into Afghanistan right before the Americans were sure to invade, these men weren’t Al-Qaeda or terrorists. They were just young British men with perhaps poor decision making skills and extraordinarily bad luck who spent two years in complete hell just because they were brown and in the wrong plaec at the wrong time. Much like with capital punishment (where the possibility of one innocent man being executed has the potential to nullify the entire institution), the chance (and ultimate reality) that three men could slip through the cracks of a system built to protect global citizens from terrorism seemingly says that this system needs to be rebuilt from scratch.
Director Michael Winterbottom ensures a gut, visceral reaction to the mistreatment seen on screen. While the dramatic re-enactments are just that (re-enactments), Winterbottom tapes them with a grainy hand-held camera that expertly gives it a feeling of verisimilitude. Much of the opening act of the film is a chronicle of their road trip that led them from England to Pakistan to Afghanistan, and that establishes an emotional connection with these men who are much like any young men in their 20’s. So to see their world so completely shattered by war and eventual imprisonment only heightens the anger Winterbottom wants to evoke in his audience (which he succeeds in doing). During the segments where Rahul, Shafiq, and Asif are being tortured at the various camps they stayed in before their release, Winterbottom doesn’t hold back from showing the gritty and nearly unwatchable details of the hell U.S. intelligence officers put them (and their many co-prisoners) at the camp. Winterbottom’s portrayal of the atrocities committed at this camp is actually so effective that if I were a jihadist, I would show this film as a propaganda tool to recruit people to my cause. It’s simply that effective.
If the film has a significant flaw, it is that it can move a little too fast for its own good. Winterbottom places so much emphasis on each scene achieving maximum emotional impact that the context of certain moments can be lost in the wake. The film is told so primarily through the eyes and mouths of the Tipton Three that when events occur outside of their perception, very little explanation is given as to why it’s happening which works to disorient the audience much like the individuals on screen, but it fails to educate the audience and helps give credence to claims the far right would have which is that this is leftist propaganda. Their release from Guantanamo was an especially murky subject in the film as little to no reason is actually given as to why American suddenly decided to let these guys go after keeping them prisoner for so long. However, these are minor quibbles against an otherwise phenomenal film. For everyone that is a liberal, muslim, or at the minimum, not a neo-conservative fanatic, you should watch this film as it will open your eyes to the myriad ways our nation’s values were subverted in our own quest to protect ourselves.
Final Score: A