Laura Poitras intended to make a film about Guantanamo Bay. She had a tidy narrative in mind: Innocent man is detained, innocent man is released, innocent man returns home. It is not difficult to imagine the consequent shades of lividity decorating the political spectrum. These are familiar buttons, and they've been pushed often enough to accurately predict nearly every contortion of pique and outrage they activate. But Poitras did not make that film, not after traveling to Yemen and meeting Abu Jandal, because here's the thing about Abu Jandal: He was born to be in movies, and he anchors The Oath with a fascinatingly flawed humanity that Poitras' last film, My Country, My Country, lacked.
That Jandal has lived long enough to tell his story is amazing. In the last two decades he has sworn and foresworn allegiance to Osama bin Laden, been imprisoned and then released by Yemeni authorities, and denounced the evil American empire before spilling secrets to it. God might be rewarding his faith, but I'm betting on Jandal coasting into his golden years on deadly charisma alone.
The Oath is actually a story about two men, but one of them is a ghost. His name is Salim Hamdan, and while his brother-in-law Abu Jandal hosts jihadist klatsches in his living room, Hamdan awaits trial in Guantanamo Bay. Jandal was a soldier, a true believer, an Osama man. Hamdan was bin Laden's personal driver, but his lawyers paint a picture of a factotum who happened to land the most unfortunate job on earth. It was Jandal who got him the job, in fact, and it was Jandal who slipped his name to the FBI. Let's just say the family reunion is going to be tense.
So Poitras gets to tell a Guantanamo tale after all, but her access is limited to moody exteriors and stuffy press conferences. The legal involutions in Cuba are not as captivating as the scenes devoted to Jandal and his reformed vision of a gentler jihad, which he expounds upon in interviews with Poitras and powwows with acolytes. He's a magnetic presence that the film is rightly wary to stray from for too long. Haunted by his filial betrayal, torn between admiration for bin Laden and distaste for al-Qaida's methods, he has become a dreamer; a slick salesman for a war waged with ideas instead of bombs. He would make a great politician, and I don't know how to feel about that.
Opens Friday, June 11, at Living Room Theaters.