Based on the New York Times best-selling memoir “Guantánamo Diary” by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, “The Mauritanian” tells the true story of a man who spent 14 years of his life imprisoned without charges at the notorious United States military detention facility. The film is a standard legal drama that focuses more on the man and his case rather than the atrocities that were levied against him. It still reinforces what most of us already know: Gitmo was a terrible, terrible place.
Detained on the suspicion that he was connected to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Slahi (Tahar Rahim) was held by the U.S. government for over a decade. Wanting a challenge, social justice attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) asked for the chance to serve as defense lawyers for the man. The two advocates were shocked to learn that the only “evidence” the United States could produce was as forced confession that was coerced after months of torture to the inmate. Even the military prosecutor Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) resigned himself from the case.
You could dismiss this as just another Gitmo movie, and you wouldn’t be wrong. It fades into the background of other similarly-themed big screen dramas, but the limited focus on one man works in the film’s favor. Foster and Rahim give effective performances, and the talent of the cast gives the film an edge. The majority of the story is about the legal team’s efforts to free Slahi from the prison, but watching characters sort through boxes of redacted material isn’t the most entertaining.
Director Kevin Macdonald touches on the emotional toll that comes from representing an accused terrorist, and Cumberbatch has his stand-up-and-applaud moment when he resigns from the case because it’s the right thing to do. But much of this content is overshadowed by the re-enactments of abuse Slahi faced, including beatings, gang rape, isolation, sleep deprivation, water boarding, and spending many nights shackled naked to the floor. This film will make you angry and sad, especially when you consider that Slahi was one of the few individuals held in Guantanamo whom U.S. officials actually acknowledge had been tortured.
“The Mauritanian” probably won’t stand the test of time as a historical document, but it is a film that will intrigue those interested in Gitmo and our government’s policies after 9/11.