Extracting Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s truths from his book Guantánamo Diary
In his attempt to make a series of torture scenes in The Mauritanian tolerable to viewers, the director stylizes them. Kevin Macdonald pairs slow-motion shots with off-kilter camera angles. A fisheye lens distorts beatings and water, light- and sound-torture techniques. Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) recreates a nightmare as the prisoner, Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim), recalls it. Set in Guantanamo Bay shortly after 9/11, the film presents Slahi as an unreliable narrator in a politicized detective story. At home in Mauritania before he’s arrested, Slahi suspiciously deletes all of his phone contacts. The three dramatists who collaborated on the screenplay shape the plot as a straightforward question. Is Slahi guilty of engineering the 9/11 attacks?
Based in part on Guantánamo Diary, Slahi’s own book-length account of his imprisonment there, The Mauritanian relies on Rahim’s innate charm and charisma to steadily convince us of his innocence. In Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet (2009), Rahim played another character who the audience believes in and roots for despite some serious red flags. It’s left to the two opposing lawyers on his case to fill in the blanks for the viewers. Both of them find that the George W. Bush Administration is either withholding or redacting information that will prove crucial for Slahi’s conviction or his release.
Donning a white-haired wig and wine-dark lipstick, Jodie Foster plays Nancy Hollander, Slahi’s pro bono defense lawyer. Hollander likes abstract causes and principles more than she likes people. To show off her caustic temperament, she mentions her recent divorce to a colleague who offers sympathy, which elicits Foster’s trademark downturned smirk. But the screenplay also demands that she regularly patronize or berate Teri (Shailene Woodley), her doe-eyed assistant. She’s less interested in Slahi the man than she is in maintaining the writ of habeas corpus for everyone on American soil.
Hollander takes trips to Guantanamo Bay to meet and talk with Slahi in person. During their first interaction, she’s a calcified, though liberal, sceptic, and a proxy for the audience. As she takes the measure of this Muslim man and starts delving into his case files, Hollander isn’t remotely convinced of his innocence. She is committed to getting him a fair trial and—her stoic expressions seem to suggest—little else.
Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch—Benedict Cumberbatch, mouthing something very close to a Southern accent—has a close tie to 9/11. A friend of his from the Marine Corps was a doomed pilot on one of the hijacked planes that flew into the World Trade Center. His personal connection to the attack indicates that Couch will be the perfect prosecutor for the case. Because he’s a devout Christian, Couch approaches his friend’s widow after Sunday services to receive her blessing. To his surprise, she displays a bloodlust and a rousing call for vengeance. He too wants justice for his friend, but he wants to do it lawfully and by the book.
As Hollander and Couch enter their parallel research phases of discovery, the film, all the while, reminds us of a larger question. Do the ends justify the means? Are those Americans who knew 9/11 victims, or who are justifiably outraged by their deaths, willing to support state-sponsored torture in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay? The prosecutor has a fine needle to thread. The Marine Corps, The Mauritanian suggests, doesn’t allow for those complex contradictions to commingle in the souls of their recruits.
While Macdonald alternates between scenes of dry, pretrial proceedings and Slahi’s terrifying visitations, the movie often favors the director’s satirical take on American bureaucracy. There’s one apparatchik in particular who, while wielding a thick black pen, becomes Hollander’s occasional nemesis. Because the filmmakers want us to arrive at Slahi’s guilt or innocence at the same time as the lawyers, The Mauritanian splits its point of view in three ways. In doing so, the film approximates Slahi’s long wait behind bars rather than exploiting his pain for our entertainment. The stylized moments of his torture are relatively brief. But they’re also affecting enough to render a definitive verdict about the ends justifying the means.