Jodie Foster plays the attorney of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian detained at Guantanamo Bay without charge .
Kevin Macdonald has sensational nonfiction material in The Mauritanian, based on the bestselling memoir GuantánamoDiary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who spent 14 years incarcerated at the U.S. Naval Base in Cuba without ever being charged with a crime. Macdonald is an excellent documentary maker (Whitney, Marley) with a more uneven record in narrative features (The Last King of Scotland is probably the best among them). This procedural is strangely flat and methodical to a fault despite a gripping turn from Tahar Rahim as Slahi. The movie is clear in indicting George W. Bush, who authorized interrogation methods in violation of human rights, but also the Obama administration that failed to close the detention center (even if the film never really addresses the congressional challenges that blocked Barack Obama’s commitment to shut down Gitmo). Adapted by M.B. Traven with Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani, the screenplay opens in November 2001, just months after 9/11. Slahi has returned home to Mauritania after years studying in Germany. Things take a turn when police bring him in to be questioned by U.S. authorities.
The evidence against Slahi is circumstantial — a phone call and money transfer to his al-Qaida operative cousin. Slahi did travel to Afghanistan to join the jihadists, but those trips were early in the conflict, when the aim was to topple the communist Najibullah government — an effort supported by the U.S. Slahi ends up being transported to Gitmo, and three years later word surfaces in the German press that he is suspected of being among 9/11 organizers — specifically of having recruited one of the pilots. While the filmmakers stop short of taking a position on his involvement in the attacks, the information is framed in a way that supports his innocence. New Mexico lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) takes on Slahi’s habeas corpus case pro bono, bringing junior associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) in to assist her. Meanwhile, the Bush administration recruits prosecutor Lt.
Col. Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) to seek the death penalty for Slahi. Photos linking Slahi to terrorist suspects prompt one official to quip: “This guy is the al-Qaida Forrest Gump.” The point is made that the U.S. response to 9/11 fed a hunger for justice that circumvented acceptable standards of due process. But all this is set up with insufficient narrative propulsion. In scenes showing both the defense and the prosecution questioning Slahi, only the latter emerges as a character with any shading. Despite the novelty of Cumberbatch sporting a Louisiana accent, both he and Foster play steely arbiters of the law who are pretty much interchangeable. And Woodley is given little to do beyond providing the smiling counterpoint to Nancy’s stern professionalism. Much of the movie’s action hinges on the U.S. government’s secrecy surrounding the investigation, with files either withheld or released in heavily redacted versions. That stasis is not particularly dramatic. The chief interest comes from flashback interrogation scenes, first with civilian investigators grilling Slahi using good-cop tactics and later by the military, which removes the kid gloves. These torture sequences leave little to the imagination, lurching into horror territory as they reveal sleep and food deprivation, physical abuse and sexual humiliation. It’s remarkable given the film’s clinical detachment that Rahim (A Prophet) creates such a dimensional, poetically sorrowful character. Still, the most moving moments come in footage of the real Slahi during the end credits, showing a spirit that in most people would have been crushed.