Perhaps the most heartbreaking realization about The Prisoner: Or How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair is that freelance Iraqi journalist Yunis Khatayer Abbas's story is just one of thousands -- a glimpse of a bloody, prolonged war played out in miniature. Swiftly moving and devastatingly constructed, Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker's The Prisoner tries to play off its darker undertones with (literal) comic touches, but the directorial duo can't hide the anguished humanity lurking just beneath the surface.
Indeed, The Prisoner would be farcically amusing if it weren't so chilling: Abbas was arrested and taken from his home by American soldiers in September 2003, along with his two brothers, under suspicion of planning an assassination attempt on Tony Blair, Britain's outgoing prime minister. What followed over the next nine months was an odyssey of violence, fear, torture, surrealism and unexpected humanity; that Abbas can be so candid about his experiences in the newly filmed interviews is an astonishing testament to the human spirit's capacity for resilience.
Epperlein and Tucker, who also co-directed the 2005 documentary Gunner Palace, actually filmed Abbas and his brothers being arrested before putting together the pieces of what happened. By allowing Abbas to relay his story (broken up into chapters with cheeky titles), the directors intersperse documents, old home movies and photos with highly stylized illustrations, done in the manner of a comic book. Even the film's main theme feels vaguely James Bond-ish.
But the needless brutality visited upon Abbas and his brothers during their tenure in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison isn't the least bit funny -- a point that Tucker and Epperlein all too frequently underline. At a brisk 72 minutes, the film is perfectly paced, allowing viewers a chance to become intimately familiar with this man and his harrowing story. Part of its power stems from the fact that the filmmakers stay out of their subject's way and don't overextend the narrative. The Prisoner Or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair is the latest in an ever-increasing number of powerful films about the ongoing military quagmire in Iraq -- unfortunately, I highly doubt it will be the last.
Presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, The Prisoner is a hodge-podge of source material and as such, doesn't rank as a visually stunning experience. Instead, this amalgam of newly filmed interview footage, archival images and footage filmed alongside American soldiers is passable and frankly, looks about as good as it probably ever will.
Here's where Magnolia truly dropped the ball. If you're going to make a documentary about an Iraqi man whose heavily accented English is the driving force of your film INCLUDE OPTIONAL ENGLISH SUBTITLES. Portions of The Prisoner include subtitles on the image (a la Tony Scott's Man on Fire) but far too often, crucial sequences are muddled. The Dolby 2.0 stereo mix is occasionally overwhelmed with natural sound, the active score and incoherent shouting. It's enough of a drawback that it lessens my desire to watch the film again.
The film's theatrical trailer is the lone extra. Where's an interview with the directors? Or a follow-up with the film's subject? Or maybe some deleted scenes? Another Magnolia fumble.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking realization about The Prisoner: Or How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair is that freelance Iraqi journalist Yunis Khatayer Abbas's story is just one of thousands -- a glimpse of a bloody, prolonged war played out in miniature. The Prisoner is the latest in an ever-increasing number of powerful films about the ongoing military quagmire in Iraq -- unfortunately, I highly doubt it will be the last. Despite Magnolia's boneheadedness in releasing such a supplement (and subtitles)-free disc, the film is worth viewing at least once. Recommended.