Humanitarian concerns surrounding the practices used within the Guantánamo Bay military prisons are a critical discourse within the playground of US politics. The prison, known for its high-profile detainees, including men suspected of orchestrating the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre, became a subject of great concern once the methods of military interrogation leaked into public consciousness. The military defended their use of torture tactics — sleep deprivation, stress positions, waterboarding, beatings, force-feeding and playing loud heavy metal music on a continuous cycle. The government cited their use of these barbaric practices as instrumental in stopping the next major terrorist attack. Calls of the program’s end rang loud during Barrack Obama’s presidential campaign — as well as presenting ethical questions surrounding the prison’s effectiveness. On his second day in Office — January 22nd 2009 — President Obama, under pressure to take action, signed an executive order directing the Cuban detention centre too close. This was an order that, twelve-years down the line, failed to come into full effect.
Kevin Macdonald’s latest feature, The Mauritanian, takes a look at the story of a man trapped on the inside of this political Catch-22. Adapted from his biography “Guantánamo Diary’ the film follows the real-life experiences of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who was taken from his home and locked away inside the Cuban facility and held without charge due to a suspected affiliation with Al Quida. The film is a courtroom drama of sorts — or a look at the ethically problematic preamble of the American Justice system. We meet Slahi (Tahar Rahim) at a family gathering in Mauritania, North Africa. He is approached by officials and informed that ‘the Americans’ want to talk to him. Slahi hurriedly wipes the contacts from his phone and goes along willingly. Four years later, when we see him again, he is incarcerated against his will in Guantánamo Bay — a place affectionately referred to as ‘Git Mo’ by all military officials throughout the film.
Humanitarian defence lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) catches a whiff of Slahi’s case. As a woman who sees the law as a reflection of a prisoner’s human rights, Nancy is one of the few people willing to defend the un-defendable — no matter their alleged crime. She recruits Teri (Shaline Woodly), a green-behind the ears co-worker, to help her with the case. Teri forms an emotional connection to the proceedings, making an effort to engage with Slahi, raise funds, and contact his family members regarding his well-being. Nancy is sterner, tactful, and cold to the agitated emotions centred on her work. She knows that her personal judgements will not help her win her case. She files for Habeas Corpus, a simple enough case, which would force the Government to finally bring charges to Slahi, or failing that, let him go.
Her court case counterpart is military lawyer Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), assigned to Slahi’s case due to his personal connection to the September 11th attacks. The government wants ‘rough justice’ the military higher-ups tell him; taking the case would be his opportunity to get the son of a bitch’ responsible for recruiting the hijacker who flew his friend’s plane into the South Tower. The opposing sides dedicate years to unearthing the government’s stockpile of so-called evidence: their attempts to get past the walls of redacted and classified information work as the feature’s focal point. Gradually, they discover a grotesque situation, one that compromises the United States’ constitutional values.
Though gripping and incredibly engaging, they’re still various problems littered throughout the film. Chiefly, the lack of conflict between the central set of characters. Initially, it seems as if Couch will work as Hollinder’s opposition, standing in the way of her pursuit of justice. However, Couch morphs into yet another good guy, challenging the same forces of corruption as Hollander and her council, just from another angle. Instead, Macdonald presents the actual ‘bad guys’ as forgettable faces in varying suits who appear sporadically, and only to offer consumable chunks of exposition. While the film is well-intentioned, it fails to take a definite political stance or point its finger at those behind Slahi’s capture and subsequent torture. The central cast is too amicable; their lack of animosity makes it challenging to understand why exactly Slahi’s case is so dense and slow-moving.
The film itself often feels sluggish. Tom Hodges’ score attempts to pick up the speed, but it fails to infuse any edge into the proceedings, with scenes pitted against lawyers reading official-looking government documents one too many times. MacDonald attempts to play with structure and timeline, jumping back and forth from present-day to Slahi’s intense interrogation sessions. He presents these flashbacks in a boxy aspect ratio to showcase the claustrophobic nature of life in Guantánamo. It’s a nice touch, albeit unnecessary.
However, there is a pleasant amount of attention to detail is scenes highlighting the absurdity of Guantánamo. We pay a visit to the island’s gift shop, which sells varying forms of bonkers merchandise. The island also features its very own McDonalds restaurant, from which lawyers are allowed to pick up a burger and chips for their clients before they take their meetings. There is truly no place on earth the Americans won’t attempt to commercialise. ‘This place will be a tourist attraction one day’, Hollander tells Couch over a shared cold one.
The film’s saving grace is Tahar Rahim, who peppers his performance with unique quirks. His take on Slahi isn’t what you’d expect from a political drama of this variety. He’s magnificently likeable, able to build a friendly rapport with the guards who ferry him back and forth from his cell. He teaches himself English via E! Entertainment News, which he watches through his cell bars. ‘See you late Alligator’ he calls wryly after his first meeting with his defence lawyers. Foster, Cumberbatch (aside from a wandering American twang) and Woodley also deliver decent performances throughout, but their efforts are not enough to make the film memorable.
The Mauritanian is an interesting enough watch, but one that takes a vague stance. Although based on a true story, Macdonald delivers a manufactured version of events. This sanitised tale isn’t enough to leave a lingering sense of outrage. In a few months, Slahi will be just another forgotten figure used by Hollywood in their lackluster attempts to play at political activism.
Dir: Kevin Macdonald
Scr: Michael Bronner, Rory Haines, & Sohrab Noshirvani
Cast: Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch, Shailene Woodley
DOP: Alwin H. Küchler
Runtime: 129 minutes
The Mauritanian premiered at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival. Amazon Prime Video will release the film on April 1st, 2021.