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The first, “Wait, haven’t I seen this documentary before?”
The Forever Prisoner
Airdate: 10 p.m. Monday, December 6
Director: Alex Gibney
The second, “Wait, hasn’t Alex Gibney made this documentary before?”
The answer to both questions is “Kinda, but not exactly,” and it underlines how, when it comes to The Forever Prisoner, the aspect that makes it least successful is maybe, simultaneously, the aspect that makes it most important. Going back to Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side and Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure and through literally countless documentaries in between and adjacent, the story of our post-9/11 intelligence gathering — and what we’ve lost in American ideals by giving in to torture and abandoning notions of due process — has been chronicled repeatedly.
Nothing in The Forever Prisoner feels all that revelatory, but the thing that’s essential in the doc is the reminder that for all of the story’s familiarity, it reflects a situation that has been barely ameliorated over more than a decade. There are still ideals that we’re failing to live up to, though I doubt that anybody who didn’t find that failure offensive before will bother watching The Forever Prisoner. And anybody who does watch may wonder about Gibney’s specific focus and the lack of forward-thing solutions in a documentary that feels, given its title, like “time” should be a primary concern.
As Gibney explains in his opening voiceover, the “forever prisoner” in the documentary’s title is Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, better known as Abu Zubaydah.
Captured in Pakistan in 2002 and shuffled between various dark sites as part of the post-9/11 extraordinary rendition program, Abu Zubaydah has been held at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility since 2006. Abu Zubaydah was originally described as a high-level al-Qaeda operative, a 9/11 architect and an aide to Osama bin Laden, none of which was really true. Of perhaps more long-term significance is Abu Zubaydah’s role as a central figure in what became an increasingly blundered inter-agency interrogation culminating in the use of torture or “enhanced interrogation techniques,” if you’re feeling euphemistic.
For years, much of what was done to Abu Zubaydah and other perceived high-value assets was kept obscure and redacted. But thanks to various lawsuits and depositions and pieces of investigative reporting, enough details have emerged for many key figures to be eager to “set the record straight,” hence Gibney’s often impressive lineup of on-camera figures. You have figures like former FBI agent Ali Soufan, who probably appreciated how he was depicted in the Gibney-produced Hulu miniseries The Looming Tower, talking about the FBI’s initial role in the Abu Zubaydah interrogations; and then you have psychologist James Mitchell, key architect of the enhanced interrogation protocols.
We’re still probably decades from somebody like Mitchell expressing any regret about what he set in motion and he’s defiant and evasive in exactly the ways you’d expect from a designated scapegoat of sorts. Most of the top officials who enabled Mitchell are absent, though some figures, like Jose Rodriguez, appear via filmed 2017 depositions, footage that still exists — unlike the footage from Abu Zubaydah’s interrogation from 2005, which the CIA destroyed.
Gibney is able to note some documents he obtained through lawsuits of his own, like unredacted pages from Soufan’s book. But he has to rely on non-graphic reenactments and Abu Zubaydah’s illustrations to depict what was done to him to extract what, the documentary suggests, was very little by way of pertinent information.
The documentary connects a lot of dots clearly and achieves probably its most complicated goal: making viewers see the fundamental breach of values inflicted on Abu Zubaydah without fully painting him as a victim — or at least painting him as a victim without treating him as an innocent.
The documentary is frustratingly lacking in details, coming across as the cinematic equivalent of a long-dormant observation from a Twitter “drafts” folder that somehow never got updated. It’s one thing to blame post-9/11 paranoia and the Bush administration for the situation that led to Abu Zubaydah’s detention, torture and then continued detention. But there have been three subsequent administrations and Gibney gives no real suggestion of evolving policies or promises made and abandoned, much less where anything stands in 2021 other than “the same place.”
A 2013 document referred to 71 detainees, including Abu Zubaydah, who were eligible for “Periodic Review Board” oversight — detainees who were too innocent to charge and too dangerous to release. Nothing about that makes it into the documentary, nor do President Obama’s vows related to Guantanamo or findings from the European Court of Human Rights related to U.S. rendition policies. Abu Zubaydah’s attorney Joseph Margulies appears in the documentary, but he’s also mostly talking about the things that were done to his client before 2008 and not what is happening with him now or what, ideally, he would hope to see.
Of the purpose of the 9/11 attacks, Gibney narrates, “It wasn’t to win a war. It was to provoke us to abandon the principles of democracy we claim to live by.” It’s a point Gibney has made in different ways in Taxi to the Dark Side and in other subsequent documentaries, and the fact that it still has to be repeated on the 20th anniversary of the attacks obviously disturbs him. It should disturb all viewers.
If there’s a next question that needs to be asked, The Forever Prisoner fails to ask it — and that, to me, is the difference between a documentary that finds value in its damning familiarity and one that takes the conversation to whatever its next stage happens to be.
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Robert De Niro