Unlucky Blokes

Photo: Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Assessing the three prisoner suicides in Guantánamo last week, Rear Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr. told the New York Times, “I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.” At least he didn’t call it a strategy for selling tickets to the new docudrama The Road to Guantánamo. And what does “asymmetrical” mean? That Americans can’t hang themselves right back? In the Gitmo depicted by filmmakers Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross, all prisoners, guilty and innocent, are treated with such systematic sadism that taking one’s life is arguably a proportionate response.

The Road to Guantánamo mixes actual television footage of detainees, interviews, and extremely skillful reenactments to tell the story of the luckless “Tipton Three”—British citizens captured in Afghanistan; flown to Cuba (“You are now the property of the United States government!”); and kept in small, open-air cages where they’re forbidden to stand, shield themselves from the relentless sun, or exchange words with one another. After months of brutal interrogation, the three—Asif (Arfan Usman), Shafiq (Riz Ahmed), and Ruhel (Farhad Harun)—regard their captors with outright incredulity. “You are a member of Al Qaeda.” “Thass bullshit.” Whomp. “You worked with Osama bin Laden.” “Thass bullshit.” Whomp. And on and on and on. The torture doesn’t rise to Mel Gibson levels, but it’s years before they’re told, in effect, “Never mind.”

The movie is propaganda, and Winterbottom and Whitecross could have bolstered their credibility by challenging some particulars of the Tipton Three’s story—a story that’s probably true but does leave room for suspicion (or eye-rolling). It might, for example, have been prudent for these men to wait longer than ten days after 9/11 to fly to Pakistan for Asif’s arranged marriage and to hold off on a trip to Afghanistan until after the inevitable carpet-bombing.

But the filmmakers have done their job brilliantly: The Road to Guantánamo is yet more lousy PR for the infidels. The movie opens with George W. Bush’s smug assertion that “the only thing I know for certain is that these are bad people.” Later, Donald Rumsfeld declares that the treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo is “consistent with the Geneva Convention for the most part”—the last four words slipped in blandly, sounding in this context like a drug-commercial narrator’s “Side effects include internalhemorrhagingparalysisdementiaanddeath.”

The new 9/11 movies aim to rekindle feelings that most of us have, by necessity, moved beyond. But there’s more than one way to move beyond, as suggested by the spottily affecting ensemble psycho-comedy The Great New Wonderful. The film takes place in Manhattan, just days before the first anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, and in a roundabout way explores the varying degrees of New Yorkers’ denial. It opens with a bug-eyed psychologist (Tony Shalhoub) relentlessly probing an oddly cheerful employee (Jim Gaffigan) who barely survived an unspecified office tragedy but insists that everything is now just fine, yessir. Then the director, Danny Leiner, juggles four other stories: an anxious couple (Judy Greer and Tom McCarthy) with a young son (Billy Donner) who’s increasingly estranged from the world, a pair of Indian security guards with opposite feelings about American culture, an ambitious young cake designer (Maggie Gyllenhaal) locked in combat with an older rival (Edie Falco) for the cake-baking queenship of Manhattan, and a neglected wife (Olympia Dukakis) whose emotional balance is upset by a suave male acquaintance from her past. The movie ends with the bells ringing out on 9/11/02 and a pan over the skyline of lower Manhattan.

How most of these subplots bloom from the horror of 9/11 is anyone’s guess; The Great New Wonderful could ditch the connection altogether and be called Repression New York Style. But if the writer, Sam Catlin, can’t begin to make the storylines jell, he does elicit squirms and titters from the shark-filled moats between peoples’ conscious and unconscious lives. Shalhoub and Gaffigan’s surreal-vaudeville shtick has moments of insane inspiration, and Gyllenhaal’s chill self-containment—her cakes could be frosted by her blue eyes—suggests a more upwardly mobile insanity. The icing on the movie’s cake is Stephen Colbert as a high-school principal whose final smiling profane utterance is a pipeline to the id that will gladden the hearts of educators everywhere.

Those wishing to suppress real-life traumas may submit to the deliriously stupid romantic time-travel drama The Lake House—I did and had a jolly time. Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock live in the same isolated house two years apart, and for some reason (“Can this be happening?” “I guess it is.”) end up being able to mail each other letters: Down goes the red arm on the mailbox and up bubbles another missive from the past or future. Is it different in 2006? asks Keanu in 2004. Oh, it’s pretty much the same, says Sandra, and you wonder what planet she’s on. If I could write to someone in 2004, I’d suggest paying closer attention to the voting booths in Ohio, but these two talk only about their feelings. As they proved in Speed, Keanu and Sandra have so much chemistry that you happily wait for them to overcome their ridiculous spatial-temporal hurdles. She’s all perky self-deprecation (her hair looks almost as good as it did on that runaway bus), and his disarming blend of blankness and engagement appears to be ageless. After my screening, an older gentleman was peppering a publicity assistant with continuity questions—“But if she sent the letter then, how could he have … ?”—while the poor young woman stared into the middle distance. Really, folks, there are better ways of frying your synapses than trying to diagram senseless time-travel pictures. As the Hindus often say about the river that is time, “Go with the flow … ”

One of the great cinematic mysteries is how Jared Hess’s deadpan Napoleon Dynamite—the story of a stringy Idaho mouth-breather with eyes perpetually at half-mast—became a teen anthem of sorts. In Nacho Libre, Hess has a truly dynamic protagonist: Jack Black as a novice Mexican friar turned masked wrestler. Deadpan does wonders for the sometimes wearyingly extroverted Black, especially when it’s broken up by ejaculations of Jack Blackness. The movie is semi-infantile camp but often riotous. Proclaiming his machismo in an accent that slips from the Frito Bandito to Maurice Chevalier to Slobodan Milosevic, Black curls his eyebrows, twitches his manly buttocks, and leaps into the ring with a belly made for bouncing off ropes.

The Road to Guantánamo
Directed by Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross. Roadside Attractions. R.

The Great New Wonderful
Directed by Danny Leiner. First Independent Pictures. R.

The Lake House
Directed by Alejandro Agresti. Warner Bros. PG.

Nacho Libre
Directed by Jared Hess. Paramount. PG.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

Unlucky Blokes