I remember the grainy photos of soldiers torturing detainees at Guantanamo Bay, a prison opened by the Bush administration in 2002 to hold suspected terrorists to wage a “war on terror.” The pictures that aired on the news showed soldiers’ vicious laughter, distilling a country’s rage into their actions after 9/11. Everyone who had the slightest connection to terrorism was a suspect, and the urge to protect America after such a horrific terrorist attack was non-negotiable. In The Mauritanian, Kevin McDonald, who directed the award-winning The Last King of Scotland, chronicles the real-life story of one man’s coincidental proximity to terrorism and his subsequent 14-year struggle to gain his freedom.
In November of 2001, two months after 9/11, engineer Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim) attends a wedding in his home country of Mauritania. Everyone is happy to see him since he has been living in Germany. There is merriment among his family and friends until Mauritanian officers ask him to answer a few questions for the Americans. Four years later, international criminal defence attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) is asked to determine if Salahi, now considered missing for three years, is being held in the Guantanamo Bay detention center.
Hollander has NSA clearance and likes a good fight, and when she gets the run around from her investigation, she begins to sense that the system has failed Salahi. With her co-chair Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) in tow, she heads off to meet Salahi who has been accused of recruiting key players in the attack on 9/11. Military prosecutor Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) also has a vested interest in finding justice for this case as his best friend was one of the hijacked planes’ pilots.
Tortured and humiliated for information he didn’t have, The Mauritanian scratches the surface of what Salahi went through. The film is based on his book Guantanamo Diary, published in 2015 with Hollander’s help, where he eloquently details his torture and the background of his detainment. It became a New York Times bestseller and acclaimed worldwide because of his first-hand accounts of the atrocities in Gitmo. The film adaptation is nice-looking, but that’s where the issues lie. The attempt at making such a torturous existence cinematic is the major fault here since we all know that Guantanamo Bay is much more than a blurry nightmarish scene.
What does have an impact is Rahim’s moving performance. Understated and composed, he effectively plays a man who charms the guards around him by absorbing American culture during his many years in the prison. Foster earned a Golden Globe for her role, and it was well-deserved even though the film whittled down Hollander’s essential work to a white saviour trope. As good as Foster is, Rahim should be sharing in that spotlight as well.
McDonald’s film is a decent primer into the Pandora’s Box of U.S. government policies, coverups and dealings post-9/11. Aside from being a compelling tale about the man who blew the cover off a facility that was borne out of fear, The Mauritanian also gives a face to all the prisoners detained. The numerous individuals whose heads were covered with sacks, waterboarded and beaten.
The Mauritanian is now available on-demand. For those who would like to learn more about Salahi’s ordeal be sure to read in-depth New Yorker piece.