The central figure of Laura Poitras’ fascinating documentary The Oath goes by the alias Abu Jandal—meaning “death”—and worked for four years as Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard in Afghanistan during the run-up to the 9/11 attacks. Yet he’s far from the snarling boogeyman of the popular imagination. Shown working as a gregarious taxi driver in Yemen, Jandal turns out to be a deeply intelligent, thoughtful, contradictory man, a former jihadist who hasn’t entirely forsaken the cause, but has chosen to define it much differently than his old boss does. In one scene, he seems convinced by the rationale for killing thousands of civilians on that terrible day, believing it corresponds to the number of innocents lost to American aggression in Palestine and other Middle East countries. In another, he’s plainly repulsed by such tactics, and talks about the importance of limiting jihad to the battlefield, “soldier to soldier.” Ultimately, the latter view held sway in his conscience; in the days following 9/11, Jandal provided investigators with the names of all the hijackers, and so much actionable intelligence that the war in Afghanistan was held up just to process it all.
The Oath intertwines Jandal’s story with that of his brother-in-law Salim Hamdan, bin Laden’s former driver, and the first Guantanamo detainee to be tried under military tribunal. Hamdan’s military lawyers won a stunning Supreme Court victory that viewed such tribunals as an overreach of executive power, only to be sucker-punched by a Congressional act that reestablished them. The title broadly refers to flexible bonds: the simple, one-line oath that Jandal and other jihadists made to al-Qaeda, the American commitment to justice and the rule of law, and the ways in which both are finessed—if not shattered outright—under shifting circumstances.
Given a set of politically combustible issues—9/11, bin Laden, Guantanamo, “enhanced interrogation” techniques, military tribunals—Poitras wisely steers clear of lefty-doc agitprop. Like any good journalist, she simply seeks to document her subjects with an appreciation for their complexity. Though a character as slippery as Jandal might have deserved a stronger line of questioning—slightly enhanced interrogation, perhaps—Poitras doesn’t need to do much to get him to talk, and she captures his varying faces as jihadist, cabbie, and father. Hamdan’s lawyers do all the talking for him, but even there, as the system railroads him, there’s still evidence of fair treatment and integrity in representation. The Oath binds these men closely while extracting them from the politics that grossly oversimplify their terrorist associations. It’s blessedly sane.
Key features: Two different trailers and lots of excised interview footage with Jandal, who’s too good a talker for one movie.