What’s life like inside the U.S. military prisons at Guantanamo Bay? Working with testimony from the “Tipton Three,” a group of young British men rounded up in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, director Michael Winterbottom’s combination of documentary and dramatization recreates the conditions of their incarceration. It’s grueling business, full of stark depictions of solitary confinement, cruel “stress positions,” and brutish interrogation tactics meant to elicit confessions — not to suss out the truth, but to browbeat a man into saying something that will justify his incarceration after the fact.
The film’s power comes in part from its acceptance of its protagonists’ claims that they wound up in Taliban country as a result of naiveté and bad luck rather than any political impulse. To be sure, their decision to trek into Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 qualifies as a Very Bad Idea, and it’s hard not to wonder what, exactly, they were thinking at the time. (In a certain light, the film’s title can even be read as a bit of very, very black humor.) But even if you question their motivations, the treatment depicted here remains brutal and sub-human — not something a nation can be proud of. Given the worthless “evidence” that kept the men locked up for more than two years, it’s genuinely distressing to think of others still being held, without trial, under similarly bogus pretenses.
One of the things I appreciated most about Winterbottom’s approach was that he treats the prison guards and questioners as something other than two-dimensional monsters. As reprehensible as their actions are, you get the feeling that they’re just military men, in over their heads and following orders as best they can. It’s a subtlety of direction — the cruelty of their swaggers and threats reads as the product of an environment that brings out the worst in people — that feels authentic, and it’s the kind of nuanced performance Winterbottom has always been good at eliciting. The result is a film where, despite the clearly unbalanced relationship between captors and captives, nobody on screen is in a position of real power or authority; it’s a road movie and a prison movie and a nightmare of ideology run amok.