2019) Documentary (HBO) Mohammed Emwazi, Richard Verkaik, General David Petraeus, Dr. Emman El-Badawi, Jo Shorter, Claudia Giarusso, Douglas H. Wise, James Foley, Jesse Morton, Nicholas Henin, Federico Motka, Simon McKay, Dr. Mamadou Bacoun, Richard Walton, Steve Warren, Robert Harrison, Diane Foley, Lord David Anderson, Bethany Haines. Directed by Anthony Wonke
News junkies will remember the saga of Jihadi John, a member of ISIS who beheaded journalists and aid workers on-camera after forcing them to read documentaries repudiating their home countries. What distinguished him from other terrorists was his accent; he was British and well-educated, nothing like the terrorists we’d come to expect. When he spoke of the United States or his home United Kingdom, it was in a voice dripping with venom and hatred.
Eventually, intelligence agencies identified him as Mohammed Emwazi, born in Kuwait but brought to London by his family when he was six. By all accounts through teachers and classmates he was a shy student who was teased about his bad breath and who had a passion for Manchester United, the soccer club. He also liked to drink and watch The Simpsons. What led him to become a brutal terrorist capable of torture and murder, and of making videos so that his savagery could be seen in all its barbarity?
That’s the question that you would think this documentary was posing based on its title but you’ll be sorely disappointed if you do. We get lots of talking heads – often filmed starkly in pools of white light against black settings not unlike an interrogation – chatting about his upbringing, utilizing school mates and teachers (although no relatives who likely didn’t want to participate). From there we see him as a young man, wanting to travel to Tanzania to go on safari but by that point he was already on a terrorist watch list for his visits to Somalia and for some of his expressions of radical fundamentalist Islam. From there on, we are given the perspective of those chasing him, and those who survived capture (Motka and Henin) and relatives of those who did not (Haines and Diane Foley).
Wonke, a veteran British documentarian, gives us plenty of background behind the formation of ISIS and of the terrible deeds done by the group that elevated them even ahead of Al-Qaeda in the ranks of terrorist organizations. Still, we never really get much insight into how Emwazi became what he did. There are no a’ha moments, no major events that radicalized him. It seems to have been a process, something harder to document. Wonke chooses not to which is what makes this documentary so disappointing.
It’s not that this isn’t a useful film by any means – if you want to look at how ISIS and Emwazi in particular utilized social media to get their radical message across. We are also reminded how these men did unforgivable things in service to their religious message, a warning of the dangers of religion turned radical. This isn’t a film for the squeamish (although they have the decency not to show the actual beheadings but excerpts from the tapes just prior to the crimes) nor is it for the hateful but it is for people who need to be reminded just how warped obsessive belief can make even the most ordinary of people. I just wish that the filmmakers had been more successful in explaining how it was done in this case.
REASONS TO SEE: Utilizes recreated footage very nicely.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really deliver on the promise to explain how he became radicalized.
FAMILY VALUES: There are depictions of violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Emwazi attended the University of Westminster where he studied information systems with business management, eventually securing a degree..
BEYOND THE THEATER: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Homegrown: The Counter-Terror Dilemma
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10