Synopsis – Mohamedou Ould Salahi fights for freedom after being detained and imprisoned without charge by the U.S. Government for years.
My Take – The horrors of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. soil can never be forgotten. A attack so brutal and incomprehensible that it changed the whole systemic scenario of the world, especially for Muslims, who till date, irrespective of their age, gender and nationality, are looked upon with suspicions, principally in the western world.
However, no matter how condemning those actions were, words aren’t enough to surmise how incompetent and inhumane former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld‘s policies were regarding Guantanamo Bay, all supposedly done to gather information and hit back at the original perpetrators.
While several feature films and documentaries have played out painful stories of the actions carried out at the Cuba based detention camp, bringing much needed focus from the rest of the world, unfortunately till this day, the military prison still exists, still with prisoners. One such story belongs to Mohamedou Ould Salahi, a Mauritanian citizen, who was arrested in 2002, and found himself imprisoned for 14 years at Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, all without ever being charged with a crime.
Marking his return to feature film-making, here, Scottish film director Kevin Macdonald known for such titles as The Last King of Scotland (2006) and How I Live Now (2013), adapts Salahi‘s 2015 memoir ‘Guantanamo Diary’, to create a powerful, captivating and expertly paced film.
Though, the film may seem reminiscent of the Amazon original film The Report (2019) from writer-director Scott Z. Burns, director Macdonald’s film is more of personal tale where the biggest focus is on showing the overflowing humanity of a man that, despite his condition, refused to give up hope. The film majorly makes for an engrossing and grueling experience that’s accessible for a wide audience, telling the truths at the heart of its incredible story, all the while raising familiar questions about actions taken in return for presumed safety and security. Further elevating the thrilling legal drama are the central performances from French-Algerian actor Tahar Rahim and Jodie Foster, who only yesterday picked up a Golden Globe for her role.
Beginning just two months after 9/11 attacks, the story follows Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim), a young man from Mauritania, who despite spending his youth and adulthood in Germany, is arrested during a family celebration at home, locked up in Guantanamo Bay and accused of being al Qaeda’s head recruiter. All because he picked up from a cousin who had used Bin Laden’s cell phone to call him.
Four years later, Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster), a defense attorney in Albuquerque, New Mexico, finds herself interested in his case when a colleague of hers requests her to look into the case of a missing suspected terrorist, and confirm his location for his family, as a German newspaper has written that the young man is being held in Guantanamo. Upon realizing that Salahi had never been officially charged with a crime or brought before a judge, she takes on Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), a junior associate, to help her fight this clear case of “Habeus Corpus.”
Meanwhile, with the U.S. government decided to execute Salahi for his role in 9/11, they bring in military lawyer Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), to prosecute him. And with Couch being friends with the dead pilot of the hijacked United Flight 175, this is his opportunity for revenge. Thereby charting a course for legal battle between both legal teams and Salahi’s fight for freedom.
The bulk of this film is played against a backdrop of legal research and the incredible roadblocks the government put up to prevent Hollander from mounting a defense. But they also put up roadblocks to prevent Couch from knowing the whole story behind this arrest. As both Hollander and Couch try to feel their way through the smoke and mirrors, horrific details begin to emerge. From the written pages they read in cloistered government conference rooms, to the autobiographical record of Salahi’s treatment. It is a tribute to director MacDonald that he is able to portray these acts effectively, visually, and emotionally.
He also makes sure to give Salahi’s defense and prosecution equal billing in this tense drama, just like the characters in the film he tells this story like he doesn’t know the outcome, maximizing the cinematic potential of the narrative. The film is of course based on factual events which means the audience is given a lot of information and context to begin with.
Thankfully the screenplay manages this in an interesting way and never overloads viewers with legal jargon or overstuffed political drama. Instead, it makes it easy to follow the chain of events and informs those who maybe don’t know all the details of this true story.
Though I wished the film had contained more courtroom scenes than investigative ones, Couch’s involvement lends a novel approach to the investigation. In the sense when a lefty lawyer and a pro-Bush military prosecutor both fail to find cause for Salahi’s guilt, their parallel inquiries converge as they look deeper into the conditions at Guantanamo that brought the true criminals to light. And the script isn’t exactly subtle, as it successfully creates both hunger for justice and a profound empathy for Salahi. And when the torture scenes hit in the second half, they do it hard.
The film does not shy away from the intense scenes of sound deprivation sexual humiliation, and waterboarding techniques which were a part of his stay there. Director MacDonald creates a tense and claustrophobic environment to represent Guantanamo Bay. The smart, economic production design simply harnesses tarps and chain-link fences to contain the characters and box out the world.
Outside, the film envisions labyrinthine spaces in which the lawyers find themselves engulfed by the conspiracy. As Nancy unpacks Salahi’s case, the few files she receives from the CIA are redacted chaos. The case for Salahi seems to be non-existent, as if the government simply wants him to hang in limbo in the absence of evidence. Torture and technical details aside, the film’s rhythms and methods are what we expect, in a good way. The film effectively makes its points. It’s also intriguing enough to make us grateful for the postscripts that explain what happened to all the major personnel.
The performances of the cast are all around excellent. Jodie Foster once again excels at portraying her character’s professional confidence and her dramatic chemistry with all of her co-stars is incredibly compelling to watch. In supporting roles, Shailene Woodley, Zachary Levi and Benedict Cumberbatch contribute well to the picture too, with the latter giving dimensions to a character that could have been at risk of being potentially one-note.
However it is Tahar Rahim, who manages to entirely steal the spotlight. Charismatic when silent and unflinchingly resilient during the toughest scenes, you never doubt his acting. His singing, smiles and little jokes are rays of sunshine. Rahim forces you to empathize with Salahi through a very humane performance. On the whole, ‘The Mauritanian’ is a thrilling politically-charged legal drama uplifted by Tahar Rahim and Jodie Foster‘s commanding performances.
Directed – Kevin Macdonald
Rated – R
Run Time – 129 minutes