Fresh on the heels of the Academy Award-nominated My Country, My Country (New Directors/New Films 2006), The Oath is the second film in director Laura Poitras’s trilogy examining America and the repercussions of its policies after 9/11, and yet already it feels dated. Poitras spent two years filming in Yemen and Guantanamo Bay in order to tell the parallel stories of Salim Hamdan—of “Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld,” Osama bin Laden’s onetime driver who the Supreme Court sided with in that landmark case—and the brother-in-law who recruited him into Al Qaeda, Abu Jandal, bin Laden’s former bodyguard. While family man Hamdan, a low-priority target sitting in solitary confinement, is seen and heard only through grainy video images and prison letters, charismatic psychopath Jandal shuttles between prayers with his young son, the Yemeni streets in his taxicab, and meetings with jihadi wannabes.
Unfortunately, Hamdan’s plight has already been documented exhaustively in countless newspaper and magazine articles, and Jandal is no stranger to the media (Poitras even includes segments of an interview he gave to 60 Minutes), which would not necessarily preclude the two as worthy subjects if the director had used inventive filmmaking to follow them on a path not tread before. Instead, The Oath is mostly made up of straightforward talking-head interviews with the wily, manipulative Jandal, who swings between bravado and guilt with the force of a split personality, at his modest home with his cute kid, or in the driver’s seat of his cab while a not-so-hidden camera rolls. These images are then alternated with clips from cable news shows, military press conferences, and easy long shots of empty spaces in foreign lands set to ominous music (with Hamdan’s words in voiceover)—all of which convinced the Sundance jury to give the film the festival’s cinematography award.
However, an hour into the doc, Poitras does uncover some truly fascinating ideas buried beneath her predictable portrait, but by then it’s too little too late. It’s as if the inflexible director, so bent on telling a particular tale, finally loosened up enough to discover a deeper beginning upon reaching the end. Instead of simply deploying ironic facts as bombshells (such as the F.B.I. documents that show Jandal as a stool pigeon whose testimony against the brother-in-law tortured by the U.S. was garnered through non-coercive techniques), Poitras could have used cold realities as a jumping off point to penetrate the mind of a man whose face she merely presents in his own sculpted image. For example, that Jandal underwent a controversial reeducation program while in a Yemeni prison, not unlike programs afforded many gang members in our own prisons, should not be a tacked-on revelation but an opportunity to bring us closer to an understanding of his struggle. “The art of dealing with others is really an art,” Jandal instructs his young followers during one particular meeting. If only Poitras had taken his course.