Review: The Mauritanian Gives a Human Face to the Horrors of Gitmo
Macdonald based the film on Slahi's best-selling memoir 'Guantánamo Diary'
Review: The Mauritanian Gives a Human Face to the Horrors of Gitmo
Guantanamo Bay could have been a beach-side resort town, if not for the terrifying presence of the US military base. Or as its well-armed residents call it: "Gitmo." Besides the infamous detention camp, the base is also home to a Gitmo cafe and a Gitmo gift shop where you can buy T-shirts, caps, mugs and iguana plushies. Huzzah for consumerism. In The Mauritanian, Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch share a couple of cold brews in this cafe, as waves gently wash ashore outside its windows. In their hands is the fate of a Gitmo detainee who has been stripped, beaten, abused and waterboarded for months, and imprisoned without charge for years.
Kevin Macdonald's film brings to mind another Gitmo-set legal drama about a high-level cover-up and abuse of power. In A Few Good Men, a hazing ritual-gone-tragically wrong leaves a Marine dead. When the base commander, played by Jack Nicholson, is summoned to testify in the court-martial, he launches into the "You can’t handle the truth!” outburst, suggesting extrajudicial punishment is justified. It embodied, then and now, everything wrong with military culture. The CIA interrogation tactics in response to 9/11 was an extension of it. The appalling cruelty of American overkill has been well-reported and well-documented. Tim Golden’s New York Times reports and Alex Gibney's documentary Taxi to the Dark Side exposed the horrors that unfolded in US military bases in Afghanistan.
The Mauritanian relates similar horrors that unfolded across the Atlantic. The story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahir Rahim) gives a human face to the terror inflicted by America in its so-called War on Terror. Slahi was held without charge for 14 years in Guantánamo Bay. Foster plays Nancy Hollander, the civil rights attorney who finally got him out. On the opposing side is Cumberbatch as Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch, who had a personal stake: his friend was the co-pilot of the second plane that hit the World Trade Center on 9/11.
Macdonald based the film on the ordeals Slahi recounted in his best-selling memoir Guantánamo Diary. Branded “the Al Qaeda Forrest Gump” in the movie, Slahi was a victim of circumstances. In 1991, he had joined the mujahideen in Afghanistan, when the US still considered them to be "freedom fighters" trying to topple the country's communist regime. Early in the interrogation, he maintains they are allies, fighting for the "same side."
In the late '90s, Slahi went to the same mosque in Montreal as the Millennium Bomber. His brother-in-law was a top adviser to Osama bin Laden, and even called him from the Al Qaeda honcho's satellite phone. Incriminating testimony from a fellow Gitmo detainee revealed he let at least two of the 9/11 hijackers to stay the night in his Hamburg apartment, though he didn't know they were Al Qaeda. All this was enough evidence — yes, entirely circumstantial — to convince CIA he was an Al Qaeda recruiter.
It was more than enough to throw a bag over Slahi's head, and whisk him from prison to prison, from Jordan to Afghanistan to finally Guantanamo Bay. There, he was indefinitely detained and interrogated. With no food, clothes, sleep and his Quran, he was shackled in stress positions, and subject to beatings, sexual humiliation, freezing temperatures, strobe lights and heavy-metal music. This whole ordeal, squeezed into a tighter 4:3 ratio, conveys the feeling of being boxed in, like Slahi. But for him, the anguish went on for 70 days. For us, it's a montage of around 8 minutes.
In The Report, a Senate staffer is stuck in a bureaucratic limbo as he tried to expose CIA's torture policy. By treating one man's dogged investigation with the utmost sincerity it deserves, Scott Z. Burns condensed a bone-dry 6,700-page report into an astute thriller. Even if we can't handle the truth, The Report reminded us that we should never turn a blind eye. The limbo Slahi found himself stuck in was a legal one.
Of all the moving parts in The Mauritanian, the legal drama is however the least compelling. Stonewalled by redaction and bureaucracy, Hollander and Couch each try to find their way to the truth. What they find will overturn their notions about the case to say the least. Couch, a conservative Christian, eventually refuses to prosecute Slahi on learning his confession was obtained through torture. He prizes ethics over ideology. Although Cumberbatch can't quite maintain the most convincing Southern drawl, it's still an affable one.
Hollander's interest in representing Slahi begins as a habeas corpus petition to challenge the basis of his detention. The emotional stakes manifest when she learns disturbing details of his mistreatment at the hands of military personnel. She isn't someone who wears her heart on her sleeves. Call it an occupational hazard. But Foster still shines. The sign of a great actor is how precisely they can mine a character with a narrow emotional range. In contrast, Hollander's junior associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) is more of an open book. In her first meeting, she instantly sympathises with Slahi, memorising his mother's number to inform her of his good health. But when she learns of his confession, she assumes it to be proof of guilt, without considering he may have been coerced.
By leaving the question of Slahi’s innocence open-ended for the first half, the film undercuts the emotional impact of the second. Filming the story for the Western gaze, Macdonald is more fascinated by Slahi's pop cultural literacy than the psychological aftermath of such a relentless dehumanisation. We learn Slahi's belief in American justice came from shows like Ally McBeal. He joked about Charlie Sheen, and liked the expression, "See you later, alligator." This compels the guards holding him to see him as a fellow human being, instead of a prison ID.
Mighty even in silence, Tahir imbues warmth and charm to a man who refuses to lose his humanity even in the most inhumane circumstances. But what we don't see is the emotional weight of Slahi’s disappearance on his family left waiting for 14 years to be reunited. Despite all the torment, Slahi is quick to forgive, remarking he won't be truly free until he does.
Wise way to live, indeed. But it shouldn't exonerate the US administrations which approved the use of such cruelty. A lot of The Mauritanian feels like preaching to the converted, rather than planting the seeds for a much-needed military reckoning. Its indictment of state-condoned torture thus doesn't feel as scathing. Limiting the reaction to two principled lawyers shouldn't make Americans feel better about the power structure upholding the system. In fact, the focus on two white Americans in a movie titled The Mauritanian is yet another example of a person of colour being diluted in their own story.
Language was key to justify previously unjustifiable executive actions. Extraordinary rendition doesn't sound as sinister as kidnapping. Nor does enhanced interrogation, formerly known as torture. Geneva Convention be damned. America wanted justice for the harrowing tragedy that was 9/11, and they would have it at any cost. The country's steadfast belief in its being exceptional stems from a delusion that it was — and still remains — the supreme arbiter of morality. Its response to 9/11, and more recently the Black Lives Matters protests, proves otherwise.
Nearing 20 years since its inception, the Gitmo detention camp continues to hold prisoners without charge. What Bush started, Obama promised to shut down, without success. Joe Biden too has made similar promises. No doubt he too will face Republican opposition. At least 780 people have been detained at Guantanamo since 2002. So far, 731 have been released without charges. Nine died in custody, and 40 still remain. As Carol Rosenberg once called them, they are "forever prisoners" in America's forever war.
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