Almost 600 prisoners have passed through the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, established on a military base in Cuba by then-president George W. Bush following the 9/11 attacks, but the identities of most of them are entirely unknown to the American public in general. Out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes, and the political climate was (and to some extent remains) such that few were willing to express any interest in the fate of these men, let alone any concern for what was being done to them.
One exception to this general rule is Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who wrote down his experiences during the 14 years he was detained without being charged, during which time he was tortured until he told his captors what they wanted to hear. This account, which ran to over 400 handwritten pages, was published in a heavily censored form in 2015 as Guantánamo Diary, and two years later with the censored parts restored. It became a bestseller and was translated into multiple languages, and excerpts were published online as well.
Guantánamo Diary serves as source material for Kevin MacDonald’s The Mauritanian, whose screenplay was written by Michael Bronner (credited as M.B. Traven), Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani). The story on screen begins in Mauritania in 2001, when Slahi (Tahar Rahim) is told by a Mauritanian official that the American authorities want to have a chat with him. Slahi never returns from that meeting, and his family has no news of him until 2005, when they learned through a news report he was being held in Guantánamo. They seek legal advice, and eventually American lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) agrees to fly to Cuba to meet with him. Hollander is accompanied a younger associate, Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), due to the latter’s linguistic skills, which turn out to be unnecessary since Slahi speaks excellent English (learned during his imprisonment). Hollander becomes his pro bono lawyer, because she believes that everyone should get a fair shake in the justice system, and convinces him to write down his story while his case is in process.
Meanwhile, military lawyer Stuart Crouch (Benedict Cumberbatch with a Southern accent) is recruited to prosecute Slahi, whom American intelligence claims both fought for Al-Qaeda and acted as a recruiter for them. There’s even a personal connection: in the government’s version of events, Slahi recruited the 9/11 terrorist who caused the death of one of Crouch’s friends. Crouch is a company man, but also a true believer in justice, so he’s shocked shocked shocked when it becomes obvious to him that Slahi’s confession was obtained through torture.
The Mauritanian wants badly to be an old-fashioned “quality” film along the lines of Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (2015), and it certainly has all the trappings of a prestige film—an historically important subject, an all-star cast, and high production values that make the film a pleasure to watch independent of the story being told. MacDonald, best known as a documentarian, knows how to convince a viewer that what he’s putting before you represents something real, while Foster and Rahim deliver excellent performances that are the best reason to watch this film.
Unfortunately, the story is where The Mauritanian comes up short, since the type of film it wants to be requires a clear narrative that leads somewhere. It also requires a clear villain, which can either be collective, like the pedophilic priests and the Church that enabled them in Spotlight, or personal, as in Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup in A Few Good Men. A less traditional, more impressionistic approach to telling Slahi’s story might have worked better, since the real villains as presented in this film are bureaucracy and indifference, neither of which offers much potential for drama. In the end, The Mauritanian is not a terrible film, just a disappointing one.| Sarah Boslaugh
The Mauritanian is distributed on Blu-Ray and DVD by Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, and is also available for streaming from several services. Extraas on the discs include an alternate opening, 5 deleted scenes, a brief making-of featurette (3 min.), and a brief featurette on MacDonald (2 min.).