Patrick Mulcahy on a Guantanamo Bay-set legal thriller oddity
The Mauritanian is an odd, fact-based legal thriller. Throughout the film, and without knowing the story in advance, you are never sure whether its subject, real-life Mauritanian detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim), is entirely innocent. He had gone to Afghanistan to fight against Russian troops – we see him being trained at Camp Al Farouq, flashes of gunfire illuminating his face. An electrical engineer by trade – there is a brief reference to him putting up a satellite dish – he is suspected of being a recruiter for Al Qaeda and was named as such by Ramzi bin al-Shibh, one of 9/11’s attack coordinators. Mohamedou does not run when asked to accompany a pair of officials. He doesn’t expect to be transported (via Afghanistan) to a detention facility housed on Cuba’s Guantánamo Bay either, where he would spend fourteen years and two months of his life.
Director Kevin Macdonald (best known for the mountaineering documentary Touching the Void) doesn’t construct a drama that portrays events that demonstrate his innocence, rather the attempts to free him because he has never been properly charged. The film is based on Mohamedou’s prison diary, published in redacted form in 2015, but focuses on the unusual situation in which neither prosecution nor defence has access to the facts. In the case of defence lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster, sporting matching red lipstick and nail polish, that contrasts strongly with her gun-metal grey hair), material presented to her from a Freedom of Information request is entirely redacted. The prosecution, Marine Corps lawyer Stu Crouch (Benedict Cumberbatch, with a thick American accent that restricts his ability to show depth), has only summaries to work with. The actual transcripts of Mohamedou’s interrogations, ‘MFRs’ – Memos for the Record – are classified as intelligence material, not to be produced in a court of law.
Because Mohamedou’s brutal treatment is only shown in flashbacks, we don’t fear for him in the present tense. One aspect of his torture, sexual humiliation, is cruel both to him and the female soldier forced to perform it. Throughout, Nancy and her colleague Teri (Shailene Woodley) are confident they can prove that there are no grounds to detain Mohamedou; they rely on his handwritten testimony (eventually published as his diary) to make their case.
At the start, we wonder whether Mohamedou is deceiving his lawyers – Nancy is joined by her assistant, Teri, ostensibly as translator. They have taken his case on a pro bono basis. In the film at least, Nancy doesn’t care whether Mohamedou is innocent; she just wants to end arbitrary detention. In her words, she took the case for America.
The film privileges ideas over people. What we see – couched in safe flashbacks – is a system that relies on breaking people. Mohamedou’s story, sadly, isn’t exceptional. He was one of over 770 prisoners detained at Guantánamo but never convicted; of the eight convictions secured, three were overturned. Guantánamo demonstrates that torture doesn’t guarantee actionable intelligence.
Foster shows us a woman who tries to insulate herself from feeling; announcing her recent divorce, she shrugs it off. By contrast, Teri is empathetic and emotional. Having been Nancy’s loyal companion, there is a point at which they are divided, and Nancy treats her cruelly.
Crouch is driven by the desire to avenge the death of a friend who died on United Airlines Flight 175, the second hijacked airplane flown into the World Trade Center. Pressured to secure a conviction, he realises that the case is deeply flawed. Cumberbatch never plays him as the antagonist. Indeed, Crouch could just as easily have been the film’s protagonist; he certainly loses a lot and in storytelling terms undergoes the biggest transformation. I think Macdonald and screenwriters Michael Bronner, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani made a mistake in not making Crouch the principal viewpoint character. But then under President Trump, America has moved on from seeking retribution. The Trump years were all about ideological isolationism for profit.
The film doesn’t really make us see Guantánamo through Mohamedou’s eyes, which really is its unique selling point – a first-hand account of life in the facility. This isn’t a traditional prison movie where we empathise from the get-go with the prisoner’s suffering. The film’s main argument is that cruelty invalidates evidence. There are individual moments that work well, such as conversations between Mohamedou and another prisoner, 241, also known as Marseilles, the men divided by green tarpaulin; and some of the torture scenes have shock value – notably when a woman guard breaks down in front of Mohamedou only for the brutality to continue. Some of the humour works better. As Kent, the guardian of material that Nancy and Teri are allowed to view, David Fynn exudes pragmatic wit. Overall, The Mauritanian is a remote viewing experience that makes the case for the closure of Guantánamo without emotive force.