Review: The Mauritanian (2021)

The Mauritanian (2021)

Directed by: Kevin Macdonald | 124 minutes | drama, thriller | Actors: Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch, Shailene Woodley, Tahar Rahim, Clayton Boyd, Denis Ménochet, Pope Jerrod, Daniel Janks, Ralph Lawson, Corey Johnson, Adam Neill, Darron Meyer, Langley Kirkwood

“A deplorable chapter in American history,” Barack Obama called Guantanamo Bay in his 2008 presidential campaign. One of the first things he wanted to do once he was elected president was to close the infamous prison camp, where the government George W. Bush held Taliban and Al-Qaida detainees since 2002. Obama tried, but couldn’t. People are still being held in the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. The more than 100 square kilometers large naval base is officially on Cuban territory, but the US has had the piece of land under ‘management’ (concession) since 1903. In view of the turbulent history between the two countries, this is a very remarkable construction; it allows the US to detain people at Guantanamo Bay without the detainees being able to rely on US constitutional laws. After all, the sovereignty of ‘Gitmo’ rests with Cuba. The Bush administration took advantage of this in the ‘War on Terror’ by torturing prisoners without breaking the law.

At the height of Bush’s War on Terror, there were more than 750 people in Guantanamo Bay. Many of them have never been proven to be actively involved in acts of terrorism. Take Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian who was arrested and interrogated by the FBI and local authorities during a wedding in his homeland in November 2001, and eventually ended up in ‘Gitmo’ via prisons in Jordan and Afghanistan. He was said to be an organizational mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, but there was no evidence of this. The only thing that could be used against Slahi was the fact that he had once been called by a phone number linked to Osama Bin Laden. Slahi could explain that; the one who called him was his cousin, who was a spiritual advisor to the Taliban leader at the time. But the FBI saw the lack of evidence as a textbook example of the shrewd Slahi, who they say is a master of covering his tracks. Like so many others, he had to plead guilty. If it didn’t go well, then badly. Ultimately, Slahi would be jailed for 14 years without being charged.

Slahi wrote down his experiences in a diary, which was later published worldwide under the title ‘Guantanamo Diary’. Kevin Macdonald, the Scottish filmmaker we know from ‘The Last King of Scotland’ and ‘State of Play’ (2009) and who also has several documentaries to his credit, decided to film Slahi’s story. In ‘The Mauritanian’ (2021) he mainly focuses on the struggle of the straightforward and persistent lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) for justice: there is no evidence against Slahi (the great Tahar Rahim from ‘Un prophète ‘ (2009)) and he cannot be charged, so he must be released. In her struggle, Hollander comes into conflict with military prosecutor Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), who lost a good friend in the 9/11 attacks and is therefore committed to executing the perpetrators. To Macdonald’s credit, he doesn’t shy away from showing Slahi being forced to confess: waterboarding, physical and mental torture, and even sexual intimidation. Horrific, inhumane conditions that violate all human rights – as if being locked up without trial wasn’t inhumane enough.

‘The Mauritanian’ has a wonderful cast, in which Rahim especially impresses as the endearing, thoughtful and resilient Slahi. Jodie Foster, who no longer appears in front of the camera, seized the role of bold and principled lawyer Nancy Hollander with both hands to show herself to the public once again; she immediately won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for it. Unfortunately, Macdonald colors very neatly within the lines with ‘The Mauritanian’; the film looks good, except for the explicit torture scenes. A very conventional path is taken towards the end, in which the American rule of law – which has just dropped so many stitches – is once again given the benefit of the doubt. A firmer statement or sharper sharpened question of guilt would have given this otherwise excellent film just that little bit more of its own identity.

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