The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair



AUSTIN -- Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein tighten the narrative focus in following up their celebrated "Gunner Palace," telling the story of a single Iraqi whose life was upended by the American military. An outrageous incident sure to stoke already blazing passions surrounding our handling of real and imagined enemies, "The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair" has a built-in audience. Content and form match up less satisfyingly here than in "Palace," though, to a degree that might limit the film's theatrical potential.

There is no debating the indignation-provoking attraction of the story, which puts a personal face on accounts we have heard for years: In the middle of the night in 2003, American soldiers burst into the home of Yunis Khatayer Abbas to conduct a raid. They find nothing to support the tip that household members were plotting an attempt to kill British Prime Minister Tony Blair but arrest Abbas and three of his brothers anyway. For nearly nine months, Abbas was interrogated and abused, held in increasingly squalid jails (including Abu Ghraib) long beyond the point at which his captors realized he was innocent.

Abbas is a classic "wrong man." A journalist who until his arrest had dreamed of working with Western news organizations, he had plenty of reason to hate the regime Americans came to topple: Forces controlled by Saddam Hussein's son Uday had arrested him in 1998, imprisoning him for three months and subjecting him to electrical shocks. He welcomed the freedoms being promised by American forces. Upon his arrest, he assumed the misunderstanding would be resolved quickly. He was proven wrong by a series of interrogators whose bizarre techniques involve questions about American movie stars.

The story is gripping; its presentation less so. Most of it comes to us from Abbas himself, in interviews that are filmed in a casual setup suggesting that the filmmakers might not have initially realized they would want to make a theatrical documentary out of the footage. As if to compensate for the visual monotony, Tucker and Epperlein use comic book-style drawings and captions to illustrate parts of the story -- sometimes filling in narrative gaps, occasionally heightening a dramatic confrontation, but often simply adding unnecessary pictures to Abbas' words.

Viewers inclined toward skepticism will resent being asked to take Abbas at his word for so long with no corroboration from other sources. We see some footage of the raid on his house, shot by Tucker while he was embedded with coalition troops, but little to confirm the account of what happened next.

Fortunately, the prisoner's journalistic tendencies served him well in jail: He chronicled details of his captivity, including names and serial numbers of fellow prisoners, in places guards wouldn't notice (like the inside of his boxer shorts).

Late in the film, we finally meet a U.S. soldier who confirms parts of the tale. One of the men sent to Abu Ghraib after the abuse scandals, Benjamin Thompson, was a prison guard who befriended Abbas and speaks of him with great respect as a peacemaker in a riot-prone environment. Thompson is a highly sympathetic character whose criticism of Army-run prisons goes beyond isolated abuses to grave systemic flaws.

Those flaws evidently include shoddy or dishonest record-keeping: According to Tucker, the Army has told him it has no record of Abbas' imprisonment. Following up on that startling assertion surely would have required some inspired and labor-intensive investigation, but it might have turned "Prisoner" into a film as compelling as its subject deserves.

Red Envelope Entertainment/Truly Indie
Pepper & Bones Films
Screenwriters-directors-producers: Michael Tucker, Petra Epperlein
Directors of photography: Michael Tucker, Yunis Khatayer Abbas
Editor: Michael Tucker
Running time -- 72 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13