Early in Detainee 001, Greg Barker’s documentary about John Walker Lindh (aka the “American Taliban”), author and journalist John Wray wonders aloud, “Why is treason worse than any other crime?” The answer seems quite simple—treason is a betrayal of trust between individuals and their birth nation, its citizens, and its core values—but Wray confesses that he can’t intellectually grasp the reasons why this misdeed is so loathed. It’s a somewhat baffling moment that receives no further examination, and as such, it’s a handy encapsulation of Showtime’s latest documentary out Sept. 10, which is seemingly timed to the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
John Walker Lindh was released from prison on May 23, 2019, after serving most of the 20-year sentence he earned as a result of a plea deal he struck for his role in fighting as part of Taliban forces against the U.S.-backed Afghan Northern Alliance in the months following al-Qaeda’s Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Given that he was a Caucasian man born and raised in Marin County, California, who had willingly relocated to the Middle East to join a terrorist organization—first traveling to Yemen in 1998 to study, and then returning to take up arms in 2000—he made for sensationalistic headlines upon his capture, with news outlets dubbing him the “American Taliban” and vilifying him as a Benedict Arnold-grade turncoat. Especially in early photos of him looking scruffy, filthy, and unrepentant, he made for a perfect villain, and not helping matters, he was seized in a roundup that preceded a Taliban prison uprising that killed CIA officer Mike Spann—the first American casualty in the War on Terror.
Detainee 001 is nominally about Lindh, although parsing its larger purpose—or coherent perspective—is a difficult task. It begins with Wray reading from his 2019 New York Times op-ed “What Does the Release of John Walker Lindh Mean?,” segues to Spann’s daughter Alison talking glowingly about her father, and then moves on to CIA field officer Gary Berntsen proclaiming about Lindh, “Personally, I wanted to see him hung.”
A balance of compassionate and unsympathetic voices is hardly a shortcoming, but from the outset, director Barker seems unclear about what movie he’s actually making. Is it an inquiry into what made Lindh become an enemy combatant of the United States? Is it a harrowing account of the prison riot in which he participated? Is it a study of anti-American hatred in the Middle East? Maybe it’s a critical exposé about how the War on Terror led to unethical practices (i.e. torture), as was potentially the case with Lindh? Or could it be a portrait of a man who was wronged by a political-media machine looking for someone to scapegoat?
At times, Detainee 001 is about all of those things. The problem is that it addresses each of its concerns in fleeting fashion, raising ideas and then quickly transitioning to other areas of interest, so that no cogent thesis or point of view emerges. One second, it appears that Barker’s film intends to suggest that Lindh was unfairly maligned as a traitor, or that treason shouldn’t be viewed as the most heinous of offenses; the next, it’s arguing that he was a pitiable victim of American abuses, as well as someone who might not have been guilty of all his alleged crimes—since, after all, the government ultimately dropped eight of its ten charges against him, and the judge said that there was no evidence directly linking him to Spann’s death. The result is a non-fiction account that’s figuratively all over the map, unsure of precisely what it wants to say.
For long stretches, Detainee 001 focuses on CNN contributor Robert Pelton’s famous video interview with Lindh in an Afghan hospital shortly after the prison uprising, during which he identifies himself for the first time, explains his allegiance to the Taliban cause, and details his experiences in the calamity that left him injured and scores dead. It’s certainly fascinating material, as are copious clips from inside the prison siege itself, as CIA agent Dave Tyson scrambles to call for help as gunfire echoes throughout the ancient compound. There’s some in-the-moment immediacy to both of these sequences, providing a window into that very particular time and place—including the seconds immediately preceding the initial grenade, during which we witness the late Spann interrogating an uncompliant Lindh on a blanket in front of his mujahedeen compatriots.
In that exchange, Lindh declines to inform Spann of the forthcoming attack that would take his life, and in a new interview, Pelton states that—since Lindh had been in the basement where the rebellion was plotted—there’s almost no way he didn’t know what was about to transpire. That supports Alison’s contention that Lindh is partially responsible for her father’s death, and despite a few subsequent voices ruminating on the futility of the Afghanistan campaign, as well as implying that Lindh received cruel treatment in custody, Detainee 001 never provides any reason to view its subject as anything other than guilty of the basic things about which he was accused. And in fact, in Pelton’s interview, he comes across as a man who’s proud of his Taliban service, and defiant about even being questioned by the American media, repeatedly saying that he doesn’t give Pelton permission to film him (not that it matters).
In its concluding passages, Detainee 001 theorizes that perhaps Lindh was just a young guy who got caught up in both an ideology he liked (thanks, apparently, to a teenage viewing of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X), and the ensuing excitement of going on a military adventure with his comrades-in-arms. Yet if that’s so, then he also faced the natural consequences of his own actions—namely, injuries sustained in battle, and ignominy for being outed as an American who sought to kill his fellow countrymen on behalf of his homeland’s adversaries. He may not have been a particularly notable bogeyman worthy of the media attention he garnered, but Barker’s film flails in trying to portray him as something less than an enemy of his people.