Based on the book, Guantánamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, The Mauritanian is a soft showing of America’s shortcomings in the handling of international events and tragedies. The film highlights Slahi’s 14 years at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base without ever being charged with a crime.
Known for films like The Last King of Scotland and State of Play, director Kevin Macdonald was given a roadmap to tell a tale of distrust, torture, xenophobia, and a solid helping of toxic patriotism, which we have no shortage of today. There are copious dark chapters in American justice and Mohamedou’s story is an addition to the pile.
The reality for people of color in America is that at any point in time, anywhere in the country, they can be taken into custody by law enforcement, without reason, and never see the light of day ever again. While large swaths of the American public enjoy turning a blind eye to this obvious fact, it doesn’t make it any less factual. When Blacks and Latinos are targeted, a crime can be made up on a whim, and in an instant, their lives are forever changed. What happens in the film is even worse.
Not only is Mohamedou taken into custody for being a suspect in the 9/11 tragedy, but he’s never officially charged with a crime. Once he returns to Mauritania from his studies in Germany, he’s approached by local law enforcement. They inform him that he’s to be taken in for questioning but cease to divulge any further information. As a quick-on-his-feet move, Slahi deletes all the contacts on his phone. The police aren’t even sure if he’s a part of the terrorist attack or not, but the overall feel of ‘not wanting to anger the Americans’ is a reaction I’ve seen many times before.
The raw response of America to the tragedy of 9/11 fed a hunger for tough justice that pushed aside due process, the rule of law, and any type of standards that would be held for an everyday American. The film does an excellent job juxtaposing two administrations. It wasn’t just George W. Bush’s government that was to blame, but the Obama administration had their fair share to boot. Only the legacy left by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld can top the disappointment by both administrations.
Like situations here in the states, if a crime is committed and there’s a feeling of desperation to find the culprit, anyone fitting the bill can be ‘the guy’ just to close the investigation and move on. This same methodology was used in dealing with Slahi. There was a toxic climate of “do whatever’s needed to close this” and before you know it, a brown person from a North African country is in custody. Now, to the extent of why they chose him, relates back to a money transfer to a cousin and allowing a friend-of-a-friend to sleep at his home.
The U.S. government was aiming for a slam dunk in prosecution. For this, they relied on military attorney Stu Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) to reach the verdict they needed. Their plans for easy street were bottled when an attorney from a high-profile firm named Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) took on the habeas corpus case pro bono. Habeas corpus is the requirement that an arrested person be brought before a judge or court before being detained or imprisoned. By taking the case pro bono, Hollander was defending Slahi for free.
Shailene Woodley played the role of Teri, Nancy’s assistant. But her performance was so bland and lines so menial, that she could’ve been swapped with anyone else and you wouldn’t have noticed. Aside from having the privilege of hearing Benedict Cumberbatch speak with a southern accent, he didn’t make much of an impression either. Tahar Rahim embodied the struggle, courage, and strength it took to endure such a tragic injustice that Slahi experienced. Rahim and Foster steal the show and accurately reflect the friendship that exists between Slahi and Hollander to this day.
If anyone was expecting an apology from the U.S. government, you shouldn’t hold your breath. There are few instances where the USA has apologized for anything, but those instances were major (The Tuskegee Experiment, Overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, Asian Internment Camps) and were made to a group of people and not an individual.
The Mauritanian earns a solid 9 out of 10. Aside from a few slow points and triggers for torture and PTSD, it’s a film that should be consumable for the masses. The onscreen relationship between Rahim and Foster is a sight to be seen. The film will be in theatres on Friday, February 12.
Photos: Courtesy of STX