Guantanamo Bay. A name that conjures all kinds of images – orange suits, shackles, sleep deprivation, water boarding. All features of the detention facility in Cuba that became notorious for its treatment of internees believed to be involved in the events of 9/11. In 2019 came The Report, Scott Z Burns’ retelling of the investigation into the CIA’s post 9/11 detention and interrogation techniques and the horrific secrets it uncovered.
Now, in Kevin Macdonald’s The Mauritanian, we see those years through different eyes, those of a detainee. They time, they belong to Mohamedou Ould Slahi (who also serves as co-producer) who spent 14 years in prison without being charged, and it follows campaigning lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) as she takes on his habeas corpus case on a pro bono basis. Together with colleague Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), she uncovers not only the treatment he received but that his case was based on little more than circumstantial evidence. At the same time, opposite number and prosecuting attorney Stu Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) finds himself frequently up against a brick wall in trying to make his case because of an intolerable level of determination that “somebody” should pay for the events of September 11th.
Since directing the likes of The Last King Of Scotland (2006) and How I Live Now (2013), Macdonald has more recently returned to his documentary roots and it shows in his direct approach to the narrative. Through a series of flashbacks, alternated with conversations with Foster and Woodley, we see how Slahi came to the attention of the CIA after the Twin Towers attack, his arrest, interrogation and what can only be described as torture, as well as his time at what’s referred to as GITMO (which has its own branded gift shop at the military airport). Running in parallel, we watch the two lawyers trying to conduct their investigations, with Foster encountering boxes of redacting documents and Cumberbatch, complete with the deepest of Deep South accents, using family friend Neil Buckland (Zachary Levi, taking time off from Shazam!) as his way round the obstacles placed in his way.
The film doesn’t leave much to the imagination when it comes to Slahi’s living nightmare – extreme waterboarding taking place at sea, brain frazzling non-stop heavy metal music – some of which is literally shown from Slahi’s point of view. In contrast to the squirming discomfort that goes with witnessing his treatment, the legal teams inhabit a world of grey metal, distance and coldness – and that metallic feel applies just as much to his prison cell as their working environment. Even Foster’s immaculate hair is cold grey, offset by startlingly red lipstick and nails to match.
Slahi is played by Tahar Rahim, most recently seen in TV’s The Serpent. One of the rising stars of 2021, he gives a committed performance, earning our sympathy while showing an intelligence and spirit that helps him survive everything those 14 years throw at him. Foster is as flinty as her appearance, but beneath her apparent coolness beats a compassionate heart, which makes her stick to the case like glue. By way of contrast, Cumberbatch looks less comfortable – and certainly less so with his accent. That his storyline is saddled with Levi’s regular-to-the-point-of-predictable appearances to move things along doesn’t help matters and the coincidental meeting of the two leading lawyers comes close to a familiar cliché. The Mauritanian has its weaknesses, that’s for sure, but the power of its passionate storytelling and the discomfort it creates more than make up for that. The events that inspired it took place in recent memory – 2005. That, alone, is a sobering thought.
Drama | UK/USA, 2020 | 15 | Amazon Prime | 1st April 2021 | Dir. Kevin Macdonald| Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch, Shailene Woodley, Zachary Levi.