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Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Shade and Dazzle

You Don’t Like the Truth: 4 Days Inside Guantánamo

John Huston: Courage and Art
By Jeffrey Meyers (Crown Archetype, 475 pp., $30) 

Guantánamo has become a dreadful word, signifying a morass of military, legal, political, diplomatic, and humanitarian complications. To an outsider, it seemed—whatever the facts are—that the invasion of the Middle East was carefully planned except for the inevitable prison camps, and that belatedly the government threw together the Guantánamo idea, not foreseeing all the complications.

This improvised view of the camp is supported by a documentary called You Don’t Like the Truth: 4 Days Inside Guantánamo. In 2002, a fifteen-year-old boy named Omar Khadr was captured in Afghanistan during a firefight at an Al Qaeda compound. He was wounded and an American soldier was killed. Even though Omar was only fifteen, because he was thought to be involved in the fight and was not in uniform, he was charged with murder. He protested that his militant father had lodged him with Al Qaeda, that he was not a member. After being questioned under torture and admitting guilt, he was sent to Guantánamo.

But Omar is a Canadian citizen, born there. The Canadian government took an interest in his case, and this film is the result. In 2003, Omar was interviewed in prison for four days by Canadian security officials, and the tapes have only recently been released by a Canadian court. Two directors, Luc Côté and Patricio Henriquez, have now used those tapes as the core of a well-crafted documentary.

Omar is seen only in long shot, as he is questioned by a pro whose rehearsed techniques are soon patent. The boy is more bewildered than confused, less reluctant to speak than ignorantly cautious. On the second day, for instance, he confesses that the statements he made under torture about knowing Osama bin Laden were false, given because he thought they were what his interrogators wanted to hear. He is convinced all through the inquiry that his questioner doesn’t want the truth; he wants revelations that Omar can’t provide. And Omar fears more of the torture to which he was subjected when first imprisoned. He seems somewhat muzzy throughout.

What makes this film especially biting is the editing. Around and even along with Omar’s questioning, the directors juxtapose interviews with a Canadian psychiatrist, who enlightens; a retired U.S. general (also a psychiatrist), who deplores Omar’s treatment; and American and Canadian lawyers who have represented him. It is a moving counterpoint.

Still, an American soldier was killed during that firefight, and Omar seemingly was involved, so—even though he was apparently tortured into admissions and was a child—eventually a judgment was handed down. Some time after the interrogation in this film, Omar was offered a choice: to plead guilty and serve eight (more) years or to plead not guilty and face life imprisonment. He chose the former. At the last, Omar Khadr is seen as one more person swept into the Middle East storm, with Guantánamo as a stowaway convenience along the way.

One of the interviews will linger. A retired American army officer who had encountered Omar in Afghanistan admits, rather proud of his honesty, that he was one of the so-called monsters who tormented prisoners in Afghan military prisons. His excuse: back then he and his mates really hated the enemy. Now, however, he has put his monster phase behind him and, settled back on his sofa, is in his regular-guy phase. We are intended to understand. And accept.

IT IS NOTABLE that when people talk about the big directors of the Hollywood Golden Age, they frequently ignore John Huston. Yet he was the writer-director of such exceptional films as The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The African Queen, and he made more that are memorable. Also, he won two Academy Awards.

Yet, eminent as Huston was, he was always a bit different from the rest of the leaders. It is this difference that is, to a considerable extent, explored in a new biography by Jeffrey Meyers, John Huston: Courage and Art. Meyers is a singularly seasoned biographer: he has published twenty-two, ranging in subjects from Robert Lowell to Gary Cooper. He has researched this one extensively and presented the results readably.

Meyers splits his time between literature and show biz, and he brings his literary self with him to this book. This helps him in his treatment of Huston’s difference. The first chapter, surprisingly enough, is a comparison of Huston and Ernest Hemingway (whose biography Meyers has also written)—to compare not their achievements but their characters. The two men knew each other, though they were not close friends, and they shared some personal traits—among them a love of boxing and bullfighting and a fascination with physical risk, along with other aspects that help to mark Huston (like Hemingway) as out of the ordinary. This peculiar opening chapter settles pretty well into place as the book proceeds because Meyers, though he does not scant Huston’s work, was taken by Huston the man.

The man was indeed striking. He was born in 1906, the son of Walter Huston, a veteran vaudevillian who became a superb common-man actor and who encouraged his son to follow his own fancy. This son of the common man then spent his early years in uncommon Wanderjahre—some Broadway experience, some art studies in Paris, some Mexican adventures, and more. He also launched a pyrotechnical love life. Eventually he had five wives, but no one can count his lovers, not even the assiduous Meyers.

In time, after the father went to Hollywood, the son followed and got work as a screenwriter at several studios, then at Warner Brothers, where he was given some major projects. At last the studio had sufficient faith in him to let him write and direct The Maltese Falcon. His success there opened the way for him to the opportunities and frustrations that attend all prominent directors. (During World War II, be it noted, he served in the army’s film unit and made three outstanding documentaries.)

Increasing acquaintance with Huston’s polychromatic past and with his restless, questing character makes it clear that he was not the run of even the golden mill. From fairly early on, his persona—tall, commanding, vaguely aristocratic in manner, with an easy rich voice—seemed in an almost mystical way to accompany his pictures, and his occasional acting appearances oddly increased a sense of his presence even when he was not literally there. (Remember his performance, late in life, of the father in Chinatown, a figure of power and mystery, a man who, fantastically speaking, suggested the director of his films.) His persona was so vivid, Meyers tells us, that it served as a model for characters in nine novels and one play.

Meyers devotes a chapter to each of Huston’s major films and is sometimes generous in his judgments. By no means were all of Huston’s films good—some of them were, as even his biographer says, duds—but much of the time, even in his lesser films, we could sense that the director was bigger than his failure. The Man Who Would Be King, for instance, slides from Kipling’s drama of human vanity into a noisy action epic, but the very ambition to do the film, plus Huston’s sense of its size, gives it some quality.

Partly because of his very lapses and contradictions, especially the larger works that didn’t quite come off, I couldn’t help imagining throughout his career that this director was not just another film-world person—that he was part alien from some other place, that he had spied this planet and had decided to try a life here from birth to death. Whenever he appeared in public—at Oscar broadcasts, for instance—he conveyed the sense that he was a visitor being chummy among very interesting natives.

His last film was The Dead in 1987, his version of Joyce’s masterwork. (His greatly gifted daughter Anjelica played the female lead.) Huston so loved doing it that, backed by his son and others, he insisted on directing, in a wheelchair, while suffering from acute emphysema, which killed him not long after. The film could not possibly equal the story but at least does not dishonor it, and Huston’s own dramatic finish—dying in action, almost—seemed to fit the life that preceded it.

I once spent a day with him. Otto Preminger was making The Cardinal and was shooting some scenes in a Boston mansion that was supposed to be a cardinal’s palace. Huston was playing the cardinal. I was invited to spend a day with the company, and in the morning I saw Huston play a couple of brief scenes with knife-edge clarity. We were introduced to each other just as lunch was being served at a long table for the company, and Huston, in cardinal’s gown, chose to sit next to me. We had a relaxed chat. Two of the topics, I recall, were Dwight Macdonald and cigars, about both of which he was knowledgeable.

In the afternoon Preminger shot another scene, a tiff between Huston and the young priest who was the lead. After a run-through, Preminger shouted at the young leading actor, “Why don’t you have some guts? Why can’t you have some guts like this man?” (I omit Preminger’s German accent.) The hapless young man never came near Huston’s guts: he was an earthling. Huston was something else. Of course my day with Huston doubtlessly enhanced my already impressed view of him, and Meyers’s earnest book reinforces it.

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 1, 2011, issue of the magazine.