Just when you thought you’d seen every angle on the “war on terror,” along comes a documentary film, “The Oath,” that finds a new way in.
Filmmaker Laura Poitras apparently set out to look at Guantanamo prisoner Salim Hamdan, the former chauffeur of Osama bin Laden, whose landmark lawsuit saw the U.S. Supreme Court siding with his arguments in a 2006 decision.
Because Hamdan chose not to be interviewed for the movie, he remains a somewhat ghostly figure. His letters are read aloud, in compensation.
We do see quite a bit of his military defense attorney, Lt. Cmdr. Charles Smith, a spit-and-polish career Navy man whose frustration with the Guantanamo system is apparent in every statement he makes. (Actually, Smith is not a career Navy man; the Navy declined to promote him after he won the Supreme Court rulings, and he was forced to retire according to policy.)
But taking center stage — in fact, rather hogging it — is Hamdan’s brother-in-law, a man who calls himself Abu Jandal, a name he took when he devoted himself to jihad, al-Qaida-style. For a while he was bin Laden’s bodyguard.
Now Abu Jandal lives in Yemen and drives a taxi, where he dickers with passengers over the fare and recruits young people to, apparently, the cause of jihad — if not al-Qaida-related, at least a general sort of anti-American attitude and focus.
This contradictory and bizarre character becomes the true subject of the movie. On the one hand, he says he fears for his life because he speaks openly about the inner workings of al-Qaida (thus violating an oath to bin Laden, which was apparently something along the lines of the “Fight Club” rule of silence), but on the other hand, he continues babbling “death to the West” rhetoric.
A slippery fellow, to be sure, and the fact that you can never be quite sure how to believe his statements keeps us alert around him. He even rationalizes eating Western-made cookies, which makes you wonder what else he justifies.
It’s enough to make “The Oath” an absorbing character study, if a very depressing film. Underlying all the information here is that the recruiting of jihadists and anti-U.S. sentiment are running higher today than they were before Sept. 11, 2001, something the film reminds us of with regularity.
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