Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune--Documentaries necessarily leave a thousand untold stories in the dust, and often you're left wondering about angles and alleyways not taken. What's that person's story? Yunis Khatayer Abbas very nearly was one of those untold stories.
The freelance Iraqi journalist, who worked as a cameraman, interpreter and all-around fixer for, among others, Britain's esteemed Channel 4, appeared for a few seconds in the film "Gunner Palace." That documentary's co-creator, Michael Tucker (who works with his wife, Petra Epperlein), accompanied a convoy of American soldiers on the night of Sept. 22, 2003, to a residential Baghdad neighborhood. Mission: to raid a house of suspected bomb-making terrorists intending to kill Prime Minister Tony Blair.
In the final cut of "Gunner Palace" we see Yunis and his brothers, fleetingly, denying any wrongdoing, then being taken away for further questioning. Yet something about the defiant Yunis' testy dignity under extreme duress nagged at the filmmakers' curiosity.
"The Prisoner, or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair" answers the question of what happened to an ordinary Iraqi caught up in a wrong-man scenario, itself caught up in a wrong-war scenario. It's a terrific film, one of a small handful of genuinely worthy accounts regarding the Iraq invasion. It's one of an even smaller handful that holds up as cinema, as reportage and as the grimmest kind of human comedy.
The style is brash, and it works. Tucker and Epperlein illustrate Yunis' account of his eight-month imprisonment, much of that time spent at the notorious Abu Ghraib compound, with literal illustrations--pages seemingly torn out of a Frank Miller graphic novel. Tucker's a first-rate editor, and he works almost free-associatively in "The Prisoner," flashing snapshots of Yunis' early life, then showing him in scrutinizing but empathetic close-up in the present day, being interviewed after his release. "We're sorry" were the only words he heard from the American officer who released him from prison, having determined he and his brothers weren't trying to kill Blair after all. Sorry. Bad intelligence.
What makes "The Prisoner" more than a polemic, or merely the latest despairing look at what has been wrought in Iraq? Scored in part to the Longhorns' version of the "The Sinner," which gives Abbas' story a compellingly weird surfer vibe, "The Prisoner" is a triumph of specificity. It is one man's story, told in scrupulous and vivid detail. The story is remarkable, yet we know it is wholly unremarkable.
The film also has the sense to amplify Yunis' account with that of a young U.S. soldier, Army Spec. Benjamin Thompson. His Columbus, Ohio-based reserve unit, the 391st Military Police Battalion, arrived at Abu Ghraib in early 2004, just in time to meet Yunis and his brothers and thousands of others held in the "no intelligence value" Camp Ganci section of Abu Ghraib. You come to know something of these men, Yunis and the man he calls "the good soldier." And by the end of the film's intoxicatingly well-made 72 minutes, you may want to scream.