The Prisoner: or, How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair


Yunis Khatayer Abbas awaits arrest in the front yard of his home.

Yunis Khatayer Abbas awaits arrest in the front yard of his home.

(2006) Documentary (Truly Indie/Magnolia) Yunis Khatayer Abbas, Benjamin Thompson. Directed by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker

In the miasma that was the U.S. involvement in Iraq, it wasn’t uncommon for overeager American military intelligence to arrest and detain Iraqi citizens who had done nothing wrong. It is not unusual for an occupying force to behave with paranoia; after all, it is actually true that the population is out to get them.

Such was the case of Yunis Khatayer Abbas, a respected journalist who had been imprisoned by the Saddam Hussein regime for expressing views critical of the regime. We see Abbas in an anonymous hotel room, dignified and dapper, his goatee flecked with grey but his eyes much younger than that as he describes (and we see footage of) his arrest at the hands of American military forces. Along with two brothers, Abbas is accused of conspiring to assassinate Tony Blair, then the Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Abbas would be held for over nine months in the notorious Abu Gharib prison. During that time he would undergo a goodly number of inquisitions and some torture both mental and physical. He would also be befriended by Thompson, an American soldier on duty in Abu Gharib who utilized Abbas as a translator – his English is in the main flawless although from time to time he makes the occasional syntax error. Thompson, who gradually comes to believe that Abbas is innocent of the crimes he is accused of, tries unsuccessfully to get Abbas released but as with all things military the wheels grind slowly.

Filmmakers Tucker and Epperlein (who are married in real life) first met Abbas during the filming of their previous documentary Gunner Palace about American troops stationed in the lavish palace of Uday Hussein. They augment their footage with home video footage and cartoon-like animations that are as amusing as they are unsettling.

The story itself is very compelling as we witness a man who supports the United States protest his innocence over and over again as those who provide the faulty intelligence that put him in prison refuse to admit they were wrong even though all the evidence seems to indicate that they are; nonetheless they are forced to cover their ass and hope that Abbas is broken into confessing that he is a terrorist. Abbas however never breaks and by the film’s end you’ll wind up admiring the man’s quiet dignity.

Like many documentaries, there is an inordinate time viewing the interviews with the subject and despite the bells and whistles added here, there just really isn’t a way to make a talking head all that interesting. Overcoming that, the story and the personality of Abbas will stay with you and lead you to once again question our involvement in this country and the methods we used while we were there. It will come to pass that someday down the line it will be a time and events that our descendants will not be proud of.

WHY RENT THIS: Compact and tight. Compelling story with nice cartoon-like visuals.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too much talking head footage.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the language is a bit rough and there are some fairly mature thematic elements.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The initial arrest, shown here, was filmed during the directors’ last documentary Gunner Palace.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3,103 during its domestic release; overseas numbers and production budget unavailable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Standard Operating Procedure

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Son of No One

Truly, Madly, Deeply


Holding on to the last remnants of the dead.

Holding on to the last remnants of the dead.

(1990) Romantic Fantasy (Goldwyn) Juliet Stevenson, Alan Rickman, Bill Paterson, Michael Maloney, Jenny Howe, Christopher Rozycki, Stella Maris, Deborah Findlay, Ian Hawkes, Arturo Venegas, Richard Syms, Mark Long, Teddy Kempner, Graeme Du-Fresne, Frank Baker, Tony Biuto, Nitin Genatra, Heather Williams. Directed by Anthony Minghella

Grief is never easy under any circumstances but when the person you’re grieving is the person you expected to spend the rest of your life with, it’s a special kind of agony. It’s like not only is the person you love dead, so is a part of you. You go from having everything figured out to having no future.

Nina (Stevenson), a translator from Italian to English, is going through that. Her man Jamie (Rickman), a cellist, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly – one day he woke up with a sore throat and the next day he was gone. She is having trouble dealing with it; she feels his presence everywhere she goes, hears his voice. Oddly, he’s speaking Spanish – a language he didn’t know in life and which he’s speaking with an atrocious accent.

Then one night, when she is playing piano he is there in the flesh. Well, as in the flesh as ghosts get – he’s most definitely dead. Nina isn’t sure that she hasn’t gone mad but frankly she doesn’t care – she has what she wants and needs. The two caper about at first like mad teenagers, with the only real difference being that Jamie is perpetually cold and needs the heat turned up to nearly unbearable levels.

Nina’s support group of her amorous building super, the plumber, the pest-control guy she calls to deal with a rat problem and her boss are….well, supportive but not understanding of everything but they give her a lot of leeway. Then she meets Mark (Maloney), a social worker who is deeply caring, just a little zany and sweet on children. In short, the perfect guy…and Nina really likes him. The trouble is that Jamie is still around, even though he’s begun to act like a real twit, bringing his fellow ghosts to Nina’s flat to watch videos. “Was he always like that” Nina wonders about her dead boyfriend. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t but can she let go of him either way and move on?

I love love LOVE this movie. Not just because it deals with grief in a fairly realistic fashion despite the fantastic nature of the plot (ghosts aside) but because it utilizes the talents of its leads so perfectly. We get the sense of how deeply compatible Nina and Jamie are, literally harmonizing in a scene where they sing pop love songs together, but we also see the other side – Jamie can be a right demanding bastard sometimes.

Stevenson is much better known across the pond than she is over here but she is a truly gifted comedic actress and musician (she plays her own piano here). There is a scene early on where she is talking to a therapist about her grief and breaks down – it’s so well done that your heart literally breaks for her and you just want to give her hugs.

Minghella, who’d later go on to direct The English Patient (and win an Oscar for it) as well as The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain ,lays it on a bit thick in places here. Mark, for example, is so dang perfect that you half expect him to walk across the Thames – and not on a bridge either. What I do like here is that this isn’t a silly mindless supernatural love story like Ghost was – a film that quite frankly I loathe. There are layers that I appreciate. For example, one thing you should keep in mind while you watch is that there’s a reason that Jamie comes back and it may not be the reason you think. The movie’s last scene is absolutely perfect in a subtle way when you think about what’s going on. At the time I saw it I scarcely thought twice about it but when I thought back upon it later and realized what it signified, I was floored. That’s truly impressive when an ending is actually better after thinking about it than when you first watch it.

WHY RENT THIS: Treats grief as a real thing and doesn’t marginalize or trivialize it. Rickman and Stevenson harmonize well together, figuratively and literally.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little mawkish and too-good-to-be-true in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a smidgeon of bad language and some fairly adult themes going on here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The working title for the film was originally Cello, not only referring to Jamie’s instrument of choice but also a play on the Italian word cielo, meaning Heaven. It was originally made for British television.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an interview with the late Anthony Minghella as well as an introduction by him to the DVD package.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.6M on a $650,000 production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ghost.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Getaway