By Ian Grey
Press Play Contributor
Have you seen Homeland? Claire Danes plays a C.I.A. operative whose failure to deliver on some intel possibly led to the 9/11 attacks. Now she’s half crazy in her obsession with tracking a Marine (Damian Lewis) held by terrorists for eight years. Why wasn’t he killed? Has he turned? What kind of threat does he represent — if any? It’s a superior show in every way, a risky Manchurian Candidate for the terror generation, but right now my heart just isn’t in it, because I just saw You Don’t Like the Truth: 4 Days Inside Guantánamo. Already, I fear people are tuning out: “Oh great, more about that.” But bear with me, because it just isn’t often that one sees, in real time, the systemic shattering of a child’s mind by American-led forces, a ruination that continues to this day. Homeland takes real chances, but the only thing you can do with Luc Côté and Patricio Henríquez’s heart-wrecking documentary is endure it. We will examine both works, but for now, I just want to talk about Truth, which takes a look at a Canadian named Omar Khadr.
At the age of 15, he was recruited to a compound in Afghanistan by his militant father, and in July 2002, U.S. forces attacked that compound. Army medic Christopher Speer died. Omar was horribly injured.
Recall that after 9/11, Vice President Cheney claimed sweeping rights to spy on and torture anyone he so desired, with impunity. Any part of the Constitution dealing with civil rights as it related to suspected terrorists was dissolved. And so Speer’s death went unexamined, and was instead pinned on Khadr.
Canadian authorities gave Omar to the Americans as a sort of ritual offering. He was sent to Bagram Air Base and summarily tortured by American experts before being dumped down the moral and legal black hole that is Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. At no point was he formally charged or given the right to representation, never knowing if he would ever be released.
Côté and Henríquez’s film centers on a recently declassified seven-hour “interrogation” of Omar. We see him in blurry low-resolution video, a slight boy bewildered and trapped in three video quadrants, the lower right one left an unnerving black. Occasionally the Montreal-based filmmakers cut to footage of freed co-survivors from other American torture sites; all exhibit an eerie calm. There’s also gut-wrenching testimony from Omar’s mother and sister; empathy and clipped outrage from Lieutenant Commander William Kuebler, Khadr’s military council and a conservative clearly disgusted that lawless big government crawled from the id of the Right; and Damien Corsetti, once the Army’s “King of Torture,” now seething with acid shame over sins you’d need Dante to catalogue.
But for the most part, we watch this boy whose Atlantic accent betrays an achingly sweet disposition. At first, he’s almost jaunty when his interrogators show up (Canadians, their faces covered with digital black circles), thinking that he’s finally being delivered from the Americans. But they’re actually C.S.I.S., the Canadian version of the C.I.A. They ply him with offers of Subway and McDonalds, air conditioning and fluids.
For four days they systematically crush him, and we come to see that these “interrogations,” these grueling sessions away from family and friends in constant terror that the American torturers will return, have little to do with fighting the War on Terror and everything to do with the interrogators. One ex-victim compares them to “salesmen whose job is on the line” — getting their subject to utter what they need to add to valueless reports that justify their employment. Seriously, what information could a child offer up to anyone a year after doing nothing in particular with people he didn’t know?
I thought of the film The Lives of Others, of dead-souled East German Stasi ticking off boxes on a report as they force the answers they do or don’t desire. And yes, I thought of Homeland and — this is essentially silly, I know — I got angry at it. I thought of a scene where Lewis’ Sgt. Nicholas Brody takes off his shirt to reveal those awful torture scars. Morena Baccarin, playing his wife, weeps, showering him with kisses and love. In Truth, Omar also pulls up his shirt to show his tormentors his still festering torture wounds and, in pain, begs for medical help. With astonishingly glib cruelty, they mock him and tell him to be a man.
If history requires a single scene to summarize the stupid evil of Cheneyism and the uselessness of torture, it’s that of Omar finally breaking. His interrogators say they want the truth. Omar begs them to please, tell him which truth they want, any truth, and he’ll tell it to them. But they say they think he’s lying.
Omar snaps. He curls into a fetal position, begging in Arabic for “Mommy, oh mommy.” Disgusted, the monsters turn off the A.C. and leave him alone in a room that must stink with terror-sweat. The filmmakers do not cut away. He doubles up, his body wracking. “Mommy, oh mommy.” It goes on and on, brutal beyond the telling of it.
The day after watching Truth, after accepting that its subject matter would never gain wide American distribution, I then wondered about Homeland, which is still a genre show — and I like genre TV. I believe it often functions best when it uses symbols and metaphors as tools to present the terrible and morally intolerable. But even with characters and situations as complex, conflicted and cruel as the show is already offering, there’s something essentially safe about Homeland, even as it pushes hot buttons.
Then there’s the show’s central conceit that Danes’ character would be be driven to illegal ends to spy on the Manchurian Marine. Until the show bends to reality and incorporates/updates its characters’ and institutions’ positions in the lingering torture and wiretap infrastructure, the idea that Danes’ character would encounter any resistance to discretely eavesdropping on any single security risk will continue to feel like something ported from a dreamland, or, put less charitably, a fig leaf of never-mind pasted over the lingering horror of the terror state.
Just by existing, Homeland is doing its genre stealth work. Viewers who will never know Omar’s story are being confronted with a show ballsy enough to show an American soldier tortured so horrifically that he beats his friend — an African-American soldier — to a bloody death. But even so, the series is localizing the disease: just one Marine destroyed by Others years ago. While it starts a conversation, Homeland‘s convincing vérité may also be an ornate means of denial. Omar’s life still ticks away behind bars. Guantánamo is still open.
Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. His column “Grey Matters” runs every week at Press Play. To read another piece about Drive, with analysis of common themes and images in all of Refn’s films, click here.