DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
"The Oath" is a new documentary by filmmaker Laura Poitras, whose documentary "My Country, My Country," about the U.S. occupation in Iraq, was nominated for an Academy Award. "The Oath" tells the intertwined stories of two men. One was Osama bin Laden's bodyguard and is now driving a taxi in Yemen. The other was bin Laden's driver and became the first prisoner detained at Gitmo to face trial by a military commission. David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: To understand the depth, the fullness and the haunting ambiguities of "The Oath," it's useful to know that the director, Laura Poitras, set out to tell a simpler story of someone, anyone, released from the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay.
A likely candidate was Salim Hamdan, one of that first wave of prisoners after 9/11 whom Bush administration officials described as the worst of the worst.
For a short time, Hamdan had been Osama bin Laden's driver, but after five years of largely solitary confinement and periods of so-called extreme interrogation, the worst of the worst had given them little intelligence of value. He was, it seemed, a low-level employee, the lackeyest of the lackeyest.
Hamdan's story could fill a movie, and Poitras does justice to the legal maneuvers that landed Hamdan v. Rumsfeld before the Supreme Court. But the center of "The Oath" turns out to be a man whom Poitras met in Yemen and whose case is less clear-cut: Hamdan's brother-in-law, the man who recruited him for al-Qaida, Abu Jandal.
Jandal is a taxi driver now, as well as a father and an informal teacher. Young men sit in his living room to discuss the role of Islam in social justice. He's seen in interviews on Yemen television and on "60 Minutes" with Bob Simon. He's a celebrity of sorts. He's also, there's no getting around it, a mess, a man so cautious, so broken down, so riven by contradictions that it's hard to reconcile what he says from scene to scene.
For four years, Poitras tells us, Jandal had been Osama's bodyguard, and beyond that al-Qaida's, quote, "emir of hospitality," welcoming new members and gauging their level of commitment.
A jihadist from the age of 19, when he'd gone to Bosnia, Jandal found bin Laden a warm father figure to young men who'd grown up without love. He took an oath to follow orders without question. But after spending two years in a Yemen prison, where he was when planes struck the World Trade Center, he emerged a different man. Why he was different is a knotty question. You have to watch and listen.
Watch him shift and shake on Yemen TV when asked about his oath. Watch him maintain to Poitras that he could never have taken part in attacks on civilians no matter what he'd swore, even if that means being declared by al-Qaida an infidel. Yet watch him later tell his young students it was good to hit the towers, important to humiliate America in the eyes of the world.
For an hour, Poitras moves back and forth between Jandal and the driver Hamdan, whose U.S. attorneys win their Supreme Court case and who is then re-charged under Congress's 2006 Military Commissions Act.
As Poitras' camera roams the eerie, nearly empty Guantanamo grounds, we hear excerpts from Hamdan's letters to his wife and children, which are not so much angry as anguished and bewildered.
And Jandal, in Yemen, is anguished, too: He feels guilt for having recruited Hamdan, guilt when he sees Hamdan's wife and children. But there is another kind of regret. When he was with al-Qaida, he had dignity and strength. Now, he can barely feed his family.
This great documentary comes down to a revelation I don't want to spoil, but I'll say it involves an FBI agent named Ali Soufan, who interrogated Abu Jandal after 9/11 while he was in that Yemen prison. It was a long, nonviolent interrogation, 15 days, and it changed the course of the war in Afghanistan.
We see Soufan, or rather hear him, since his face isn't shown, testifying later before Congress, speaking out against the torture of prisoners like the driver Salim Hamdan. Look, he says, at how much we learned from Abu Jandal without a drop of blood. And there is also the matter of the U.S. Constitution, to which, Soufan says, he swore an oath.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair, and you can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.