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Ugly ironies permeate hopeful 'Prisoner'

"The Prisoner, or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair" follows Baghdad-based journalist Yunis Abbas's journey from freedom to the Abu Ghraib prison and then his ultimate release. (NOMADOS LLC/RED ENVELOPE ENTERTAINMENT)

Every day the news gives us more numbers: how many dead in Iraq, how many wounded, how many bombs have gone off, how many detained at Gitmo. Faces blur and names become meaningless; overwhelmed, we quickly turn to the sports section.

"The Prisoner, or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair " takes a different approach. It zeroes in on one man, a quiet, well - spoken Baghdad-based journalist named Yunis Abbas , and follows his journey from freedom to Abu Ghraib and back again. It's an angry story, but also a strangely hopeful one, in the sense of new life sprouting through a battlefield. Above all, it's personal and specific, and that is news we can use.

In September 2003, Abbas and his brothers were arrested on suspicions they had a bomb-making factory in their kitchen and planned to assassinate the visiting British prime minister. "You're only as good as your intelligence," brags a young US officer, which means he must not be very good: the brothers' incendiary materials proved to be bottles of shampoo.

No matter. After weeks of "interrogation," the Abbases were transferred to Abu Ghraib. They were lucky enough to be assigned to Camp Ganci , a section of the prison holding 4,000 detainees "of no intelligence value." Right there is the Army's admission that they didn't have a case in the first place.

Nine months at the camp followed, highlighted by prison riots, contaminated food, lethal rocket fire from resistance fighters, and grinding daily abuse. Ever the journalist, Abbas kept a written record on a pair of underwear. Then an officer called him in and said, sorry, our mistake. Abbas took a taxi home. "I know this general, he's a good man," he tells the camera. "But I don't need 'sorry.' "

That tone, a patient insistence on dignity, informs "The Prisoner." Filmmakers Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein -- they made 2004's "Gunner Palace ," about a US platoon in Baghdad -- know there are enough ugly ironies in this story to go around. They trace Abbas's life from torture at the hands of Uday Hussein to torture at the hands of American soldiers sent over because our president said Iraqis "deserve better than tyranny, corruption, and torture chambers." Among other things, the film can be read as a testament to the Wonderland illogic permeating the US presence on almost every level. As a coalition spokesman is quoted here, "If [the detainees] were innocent, they wouldn't be at Abu Ghraib. "

Perhaps the most unexpected part of Abbas's stay at Camp Ganci is his friendship with Army Specialist Benjamin Thompson , who came to Abu Ghraib as part of the post-scandal broom and who treated the prisoners under his watch as humans because they were humans. The filmmakers speak with Thompson -- he seems like a very ordinary saint -- and they expend a lot of effort on turning "The Prisoner" into a graphic novel, complete with comic - book transitions, hand-lettered intertitles, and cheeky panels.

It's cute but unnecessary. Whether caught in the Army videotape of his arrest, or calmly relating his Kafkaesque tale three years later, Yunis Abbas provides his own novel, graphic with human suffering and dazed survival. He's a journalist. He reports. This scruffy, offhanded souvenir is the real article.

Ty Burr can be reached at For more on movies, go to