By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2010; WE33
"The Oath" is Laura Poitras's second film in a documentary trilogy she intends to produce about American politics and policy after Sept. 11, 2001. Her first installment, "My Country, My Country," was a deeply moving account of a Sunni physician running for office in Iraq in 2005, and delivered a vivid portrait of the tensions animating life in that country after the U.S. invasion. "The Oath" has similar ambitions but falls short, despite the director's skillful efforts to turn uneven raw material into a coherent narrative.
Most of "The Oath" centers on a Yemeni taxi driver named Abu Jandal, who in the 1990s became Osama bin Laden's bodyguard. Abu Jandal's brother-in-law, Salim Hamdan, became the al-Qaeda leader's driver.
Spending time in Abu Jandal's cab and at home with his young son, Poitras simply turns her camera on and lets him explain why he turned to jihad, his contradictory feelings toward America (he lets his son watch "Tom and Jerry" cartoons) and the reasons he's still at large while Hamdan -- whose name is on a pivotal Supreme Court decision invalidating military tribunals -- languishes in Guantanamo.
Hamdan is eventually released in the course of "The Oath" but remains resolutely off-stage throughout the film, his voice represented only by his letters home and through his lawyers' statements at Guantanamo. The disparity of access results in a wobbly, disproportionate film that often feels like slickly packaged information but not a real story. In time, Abu Jandal's talk begins to feel monotonously self-serving and maddeningly unreliable; finally very little is revealed about his motivations, his relationship with Hamdan and what meaning, if any, he derived from his time with al-Qaeda (he still teaches jihad to young men in Yemen's capital city, Sanaa).
"The Oath" has been beautifully shot, edited and scored, making it all the easier to believe that the suspense Poitras expertly creates will have a satisfying payoff. It doesn't. "The Oath" finally promises more than it delivers, leaving viewers at a destination just short of where they were told they were going in the first place.
** Unrated. At Landmark's E Street Cinema. Contains nothing objectionable. In English and Arabic with English subtitles. 96 minutes. Director Laura Poitras and Andrea Prasow, senior counsel for Human Rights Watch's Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program, will host a question-and-answer sesson Friday after the 8 p.m. screening.