The Road to Guantanamo is a thoroughly engrossing, sufficiently cathartic, but frustratingly one-sided indictment of the American military's appalling treatment of foreign "enemy combatants". Michael Winterbottom (coming off Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, which might have been inexcusably silly if it hadn't been unbelievably dull), co-directed with longtime collaborator Mat Whitecross, and the two combine documentary-style interview footage with haunting, disturbing, and surprisingly beautiful reenactments, to tell the story of the Tipton Three -- three British-born Muslims mistaken for Taliban and imprisoned at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for over two years. Winterbottom, the renowned directorial chameleon whose other art house oddity of 2005 was the concert film/episodic porn 9 Songs, proves once again that if anyone is better at polarizing an audience, nobody does it with more style. He's got a potentially stunning piece of propaganda on his hands here -- it's just too bad he hasn't made a better film.
The Tipton Three start out as Four. 19-year-old Asif, a British citizen of Pakistani descent, is informed on September 10, 2001 that his mother has picked a girl back in the home country for him to marry. He packs his bags, gets on a plane, and a couple of weeks later, invites three friends from his English town of Tipton to join him in Karachi for the wedding party. Ruhel, Monir and Shafiq -- all British citizens, all semi-practicing Muslims, ranging from the ages of 19-23 -- arrive, and the four friends visit a mosque where the Imam calls for able-bodied men to travel to Afghanistan to help out with humanitarian efforts there. The boys are well-meaning, but totally naive, and they hitch a ride to Kandahar the next day, arriving just as the first U.S. bombs hit the city.
After a couple of weeks in Afghanistan, the boys realize that they've made a foolish mistake, and try to arrange travel back to Pakistan. With a language barrier thicker than land borders, something goes wrong, and the four end up on a minibus that drives them straight into Konduz, at the time one of the last cities under the thumb of the Taliban. After a couple of weeks of helpless captivity, with US bombs going off all the time, eventually the Northern Alliance rides in, hustles Ruhel, Shafiq and Asif into sardine-packed container trucks, shoots at them, starves them, and eventually imprisons them at Sheberghan. When the Red Cross learns that British citizens are being held alongside surrendered Taliban soldiers, they alert the British Embassy -- whose officials assume that our young heroes are international terrorists, and ship them off to Guantanamo. Two years later, all three are released. Charges are never filed. Monir, who disappeared in the confusion at Konduz, was never heard from again.
Young, non-professional actors (Waqar Siddiqui, Riz Ahmed, Farhad Harun and Arfan Usman) have been cast as the four young men; the three survivors narrate, through inter-cut interview segments. The story has undeniably been shaped for dramatic purposes, and whilst there are certainly some spots of omission (not to mention shoddy character development employed as a stylistic device; more on that later), there's little reason to doubt the veracity of the events on display. Does the contents of The Road to Guantanamo make the U.S. military look bad? Of course -- that's why it was made.
Compared to their days in the custody of the Northern Alliance, the Tipton Three's treatment in the hands of American and British forces is tidier, but hardly more humane. They get private cages, but are nonetheless alternately starved, tortured, beaten, berated for religious practice and ethnicity, and informally accused of charges that range from somewhat implausible to laughably impossible. If you're already on its side (as I am), or veering towards it, the film is emotional effective, if intellectually smug. But as a piece of propaganda, The Road to Guantanamo could be accused of not working hard enough to cover its own holes. Winterbottom and Whitecross are chiefly interested in presenting the Tipton Three's side of the story; their team apparently did little research beyond interviewing the real boys, and took their side of the story at face value, and as the only one worth telling. I don't bring this up to denigrate the work that has been done -- Winterbottom and Whitecross spent hundreds of hours teasing the story out of the boys, and it shows -- but it's hard to deny that that the only bad guys on display here are the many representatives of the U.S. and U.K.'s respective militaries and governments.
It's not hard to anticipate the various angles of criticism that might arise from this tactic. For one thing, since the only three prisoners we do get to know well are not only clearly innocent, but besides for a youthful indiscretion or two are generally portrayed as exemplary human beings, it would be easy to accuse the filmmakers of suggesting that *everyone* detained at Guantanamo is there by mistake. Which, for all I know, could be true -- but it probably isn't. More troubling, is Winterbottom and Whitecross' decision to depict the American and English army and intelligence officials as cardboard cutouts, devoid of personality and divorced from social context. I'm not arguing that the Tipton Three didn't go through hell at the hands of their captors, but I'm troubled by how quick the filmmakers are to turn said tormentors into ciphers.
Paradoxically, if we ever felt like the soldiers and interrogators seen here were in any way human, Winterbottom and Whitecross' indictment of their behavior would hit twice as hard. The Road to Guantanamo essentially suggests that every single member of the U.S. and U.K. armed forces is a willfully ignorant, obviously incompetent caveman/woman who gets his/her kicks torturing innocent brown people, and that each military engagement we're currently embroiled in is failing due to the disastrous bumbling of the same. Winterbottom and Whitecross seemingly want The Road to Guantanamo to function as a catalyst for a serious look at the mistakes made in The War on Terror, and with some audiences, it should brilliantly succeed. But I fear that,after all we've seen and heard about our country in the past five years (hell, in the past five months), their binary approach isn't capable of doing that job thoroughly enough.