Movie review: 'The Road to Guantanamo'

3 stars (out of four)

Set largely in the Guantanamo Bay prison camps and in Afghanistan, Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross' "The Road to Guantanamo" is a mix of dramatic and documentary techniques that hits like a shock wave. It's a fervent, topical political drama of extraordinary impact and ferocity, based on the real-life misadventures of four young British Muslims accidentally swept up in the war against the Taliban and then into the Guantanamo camps.

Step by step, with newsreel detail and the tension of a thriller, Winterbottom and Whitecross pull us into a hell on Earth. As terror piles on terror, they convince us that this must be happening. Which it apparently did.

The film takes us into the prison camps and zeroes in on the physical torment and emotional terror of the prisoners. We see the detainees imprisoned in open cages, allowed only a few minutes a day to eat or exercise, beaten by their guards, humiliated and interrogated (in real life, for hours)--all while being held without legal representation or trial.

Defenders of that lack of due process (target of the recent Supreme Court ruling on Guantanamo) may rationalize that these measures, though brutal, are required by post-9/11 reality, and that these are, in President Bush's words, "bad men" who deserve harsh treatment to make them reveal the truth and save American lives. But, in this case, as with Alfred Hitchcock's classic thrillers, we are apparently being shown not enemy combatants but the "wrong men."

The protagonists, four young British nationals from Tipton, are not terrorists or jihadists, both in the film's view and also in the final judgment of their captors, who released the three survivors without charges after 261/2 years. In their own account, they were simply young guys traveling to Pakistan for a wedding. After unwisely volunteering for a "humanitarian" expedition inspired by a mosque speaker, they wound up in Afghanistan as the Taliban were being defeated and as streams of civilians were displaced by the conflict.

There, the nightmare begins. One of the four disappears forever. The others are arrested by the Northern Alliance forces, grilled by interrogators. Finally, they are shipped off to Guantanamo, to Camp X-Ray and later, Camp Delta, where they are questionably "identified" as part of a crowd in a photograph with Osama bin Laden--and where the absence of legal restraints allows the initial blunders to be compounded.

The youthful quartet are 19-year-old Asif Iqbal (Arfan Usman), who is traveling to Pakistan to marry a bride picked by his mother; his best man, 19-year-old Ruhel Ahmed (Farhad Harun); and their older buddies, Shafiq Rasul (Riz Ahmed), 23, and Monir Ali (Waqar Siddiqui), 22. Actors play the four in the dramatic scenes, though three of the real protagonists--Iqbal, Ahmed and Rasul--also appear in the film as on-camera interviewees, narrating the story. (There is no official writer's credit.)

Despite the threesome's final release, some may question their story. Others may see a pro-terror conspiracy (or tendency) in the fact that much of "The Road to Guantanamo" was shot in Iran. (Suitable terrain and the excellence of Iran's film industry, rather than politics, were the stated reasons.) But "Road" seems even-handed. The worst guards seem less monsters than ignorant bullies--and some of them are sympathetic.

Many of the prisoners may be guilty, but that doesn't excuse the abandonment of judicial safeguards--which are there precisely to mete out proper justice and prevent just such mistakes. The moviemakers tell the trio's engrossing story with a mix of battering immediacy, precision and discretion that puts you totally in the movie's grip; the camp scenes especially have realism, intensity and a heightened sensitivity to physical and spiritual suffering. Winterbottom has been a brilliant portrayer of contemporary political chaos in movies like "In This World" and "Welcome to Sarajevo." Here he casts his spell again, mixing history and drama as powerfully as Paul Greengrass did in "United 93."


'The Road to Guantanamo'

Directed by Michael Winterbottom, Mat Whitecross; photographed by Marcel Zyskind; production designed by Mark Digby; music by Harry Escott, Molly Nyman; produced by Andrew Eaton, Melissa Parmenter. A Roadside Attractions release; opens Friday at Loews Piper's Alley. In English and Arabic, with English subtitles. Running time: 1:35. MPAA rating: R (for language and disturbing scenes of violence.)

Asif Iqbal - Arfan Usman

Ruhel Ahmed - Farhad Harun

Shafiq Rasul - Riz Ahmed

Monir Ali - Waqar Siddiqui

Zahid - Shahid Iqbal

Interrogator (Sheberghan) - Jason Salkey

Himself (narration) - Asif Iqbal

Himself (narration) - Ruhel Ahmed

Himself (narration) - Shafiq Rasul

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