This drama based on Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s NY Times best-selling memoir “Guantánamo Diary” tells the story of a man swept up in the US government’s post-9/11 frenzy to find the perpetrators. Slahi was renditioned into Guantánamo and suspected of recruiting for al Qaeda. He spent years there without being charged or tried, in a horrible limbo. And he’d still be there if not for gutsy defense attorney Nancy Hollander who took on his case. Jodie Foster plays Hollander. But the one that keeps you watching is Tahar Rahim who plays Slahi. Rahim burst on the scene in 2009 in the French film The Prophet where he also played a prisoner. But here he plays a much more nuanced character, fighting for his life against seemingly insurmountable odds. He’s the reason to see this somewhat familiar legal thriller.
The prosecutor assigned to the case is the very by-the-book Lt. Col Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch with an annoying Southern accent). He comes to the case with all the cards, and a signed confession by the defendant, while Hollander is given scant info that hasn’t been redacted within an inch of its life. But she’s a formidable adversary and as she peels back the hidden layers of the case, she discovers more and more malfeasance by the government. I won’t go into it all, but the government’s case gets very messy when Hollander finds out about how that confession was obtained. Remember the Bush administration’s “enhanced interrogation” aka torture? (For a refresher you can watch 2019’s The Report.) For Couch’s part, he’s equally appalled when he discovers what’s going on, to the point he quits rather than follow orders to use the coerced confession.
It’s kind of a given that Hollander will get Slahi sprung, but the film is a reminder that what goes on in our justice system is anything but just. And you’re left to wonder how many others did not luck out getting a pro bono lawyer on their case. It’s a story worth seeing, even if it could have been a lot more dramatic.
I was intrigued to see this movie when I heard about the prosecutor quitting rather that use evidence produced by torture. Last election cycle I worked for the Congressional candidate in my district who lost to the now infamous Madison Cawthorn. His name is Morris Davis and he was an Air Force Colonel, too, and he was assigned to Guantanamo, and he also quit because he would not use evidence obtained through torture. I now know that many military prosecutors left for the same reason.
[Mainstream Chick’s take: I agree that the best thing The Mauritanian has going for it is Rahim’s performance as Slahi. He’s the only one given any chance to show some range, and he exudes an interesting mix of charm, suspicion, fear, and good humor. The other characters lack any real depth or particular appeal, including those played by Foster, Cumberbatch (with the horrifyingly distracting southern accent) and Shailene Woodley, who has very little to do as a legal sidekick. The actors do their best with the material, but most of it feels like a retread. We’ve seen bits and pieces of this story before in films like Zero Dark Thirty and 2019’s The Report. Even the “sets” look familiar – from the torture scenes, to the sparse subterranean document reading room that Hollander spends half the movie in, sifting through boxes of heavily-redacted “evidence” provided by the government. I don’t feel the need to read Slahi’s diaries, but I was intrigued enough to get more backstory – and a “where are they now?” type update – after watching the film. And I’m now even more convinced that his story could have been told better. -hb]