There isn’t exactly any ambiguity in regards to analyzing the legalities of the War on Terror: The continual actions of detaining “suspects” without trial and holding them in Guantanamo Bay (for a multitude of years), which were costly national and geopolitical embarrassments that accomplished zilch. As complete betrayals of democratic values, these horrific actions were outliers only in the sense that the public knew about them. Otherwise, they fit alongside all the shady skullduggery that comes with national security; it’s just that American Exceptionalism or shiny Americana failed to be projected far enough for people not to care.
So it’s good to see Kevin Macdonald’s The Mauritanian not beat around the Bush (Cheney and Rumsfeld) of it all or ever question the means and ends of the practices. Adapted from Mohamedou Ould Salahi’s memoir Guantanamo Diary, The Mauritanian chronicles Salahi’s (Tahar Rahim) fourteen years “detained” and tortured both physically and psychologically at Guantanamo Bay after the German-educated electrical engineer was accused of being a recruiter for al-Qaeda. From the beginning, the film sidesteps the question of guilt altogether to instead focus on the messy machinations of the law: There is no case here that might be allowed in an American court. And it’s, sadly, as blandly straightforward as it sounds, lacking in finesse and dipping into dialogue that asks its characters to shout in each other’s faces lines like, “It’s systemic!” and “I don’t want to hear another word about detainee treatment!”
Much of such shouting comes either from Salahi’s pro bono attorney, Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster), or the prosecution, Lt. Col. Stuart Couch (a southern-fried, blandly Texas Toast Benedict Cumberbatch). Macdonald and the movie’s producer and co-writer, Martin Bronner, are regulars of this kind of straight-from-yesterday’s-headlines drama, and there are long stretches where The Mauritanian feels like a throwback to a more naïve era’s approach to issues of national importance. Hollander is a classic liberal who’s “been fighting the government since Vietnam” and is only interested in her client’s rights; Couch wants him to get the death penalty. Both stubbornly believe that the only way to prove their points is by making sure Salahi gets a fair trial, and soon find themselves being stonewalled through the process.
Yet it’s as we spend more time with both of them that one begins to realize how dull they are as characters when compared to Salahi. Heavily redacted on initial release but republished in an uncensored version in 2017, Salahi’s book offered a haunting first-person account of the horrors he faced: beatings, sexual assault, sleep deprivation, exposure to freezing-cold temperatures and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques approved by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. We see some of them re-enacted late in the movie, with a flashback switch to a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio and into a hallucinatory montage of stress positions, sexual humiliations, people in masks, and blasted metal that amounts to a ferocious sensory assault. Deployed for strategic shock value, it’s at once unendurable and considering the lived trauma being depicted, nowhere nearly unendurable enough. (In fact, it’s the closest the movie gets to offering an inspired insight into this country’s nightmares.) A more honest or at least realistic film about Salahi’s detainment probably would have featured more torture scenes and in a more spread-out, less concentrated fashion. The Mauritanian isn’t really about Salahi’s detention even if it initially suggests otherwise, as it so often cuts away to Hollander and Couch out in the free world investigating. They’re both clear narrative distractions to give obvious relief for a wide audience, even as they represent a retreat into conventionality and a failure of nerve on the part of the filmmakers.
As the movie leaves Rahim and the better material for the more stringent legal side, there is still something admirably self-defeating about the idea of making a legal drama about Guantanamo Bay. It’s revealed that the evidence against Salahi, who admits only to training with the formerly CIA-backed Afghan mujahideen in an al-Qaeda camp back in the early ’90s, consists of summaries of reports and confessions, which neither side is supposed to see. But instead of rising to the challenge of such potentially abstract subject matter, the film opts for clichés: file boxes, lawyer talk over beers and fast food, the classic confrontation in a nighttime parking lot. It’s only when the movie returns to Salahi, played by a rather incredible Rahim with an extraordinary mix of cynicism, despair, humor and soul, that you catch a glimpse of how great a movie this could and should have been; as he trudges through the terror and finds a friendship with an unseen French-speaking fellow detainee he nicknames “Marseille.”
At one point Salahi is described as the “al-Qaeda Forrest Gump,” an easy target for suspicion based on his relationships with other key figures (his cousin was a spiritual adviser to Osama bin Laden). As the originator of the “Gump” comparison and the former chief prosecutor of Guantanamo, Morris D. Davis described Salahi’s case as “a lot of smoke and no fire,” a conclusion that took long enough to reach. The Mauritanian, for its part, doesn’t exactly gives its assumed subject the cinematic equivalent of due process. For purposes of suspense and intrigue, as aforementioned, it keeps Salahi’s guilt or innocence temporarily in play, treating his history as a guessing game until his lawyers finally deliver sweet vindication. Their persistence is certainly worth saluting, as is Rahim’s brilliant performance which also works as a thorough dismantling of the harmful Muslim stereotypes that Hollywood has pushed from some decades. But The Mauritanian ultimately plays like a sick tease of something greater, as it at times tries to play with our empathy for Salahi (even if it’s obvious from the get-go where it belongs). While each of their journeys carried a lot, at least Forrest Gump was granted the courtesy of being at the center of his own story. Elevated by a grippingly multi-faceted Tahar Rahim, The Mauritanian is a frustrating endeavor; a film that hints at something more potently challenging yet instead opts for insipid clichés and overstuffed perspectives.
The Mauritanian is currently playing in Select Theaters