‘The Mauritanian’ Locks Itself Inside One Man’s Nightmare at Guantanamo

The Mauritanian” is telling two stories, one of which works to riveting effect. The other is more of a standard, but well-acted legal drama. But some movies elevate their worth even further by telling us the kind of history that gets lost in the shadows. In November 2001 Mohamedou Ould Salahi became one of the many names swept up in a Kafkaesque nightmare amid the lingering aftershocks of 9/11. For 14 years he was imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, the now infamous prison the U.S. still runs on Cuban territory. Director Kevin Macdonald, an expert in taught narratives, turns Salahi’s story into a parable that could be about several issues, but the main one is the horror of being entrapped by an overpowering system. “The Mauritanian” is currently playing in select theaters and readers are encouraged not to risk their health or the health of others. The film is slated for a soon-to-be-announced March VOD release. 

When we first meet Salahi (Tahar Rahim), he is lured out of a family gathering in Mauritania by security officials who dutifully hand him over to U.S. authorities. It’s been two months since the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and the Bush White House is hunting down any leads connected to Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden. Salahi is targeted because a call to him has been traced to Bin Laden’s personal phone. Cut to 2005 and a New Mexico lawyer named Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) decides to take on Salahi’s case. It looks like a habeas corpus situation where the government is holding Salahi, now incarcerated at Guantanamo (“Gitmo”), without actually charging him with anything. Hollander travels to the prison base with associate Teri (Shailene Woodley) to interview the accused. The Bush administration is also preparing its own case and Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) gets tagged with prosecuting Salahi. Couch and Hollander will be confronted by the archaic, shadowy system implemented by a post-9/11 world, where evidence is buried and testimonials redacted. Salahi will also recount the psychological torture and physical abuse those snatched into Gitmo endured.

Macdonald’s approach with this material is an effective throwback to classic political filmmaking. It’s not an ambiguous film, but a visceral statement on the abuses carried out by the Bush administration in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Those with long memories will recall the early days of the “War on Terror,” when terms like “rendition” became synonymous with the snatching of suspects who would disappear into the maze of Gitmo, where many prisoners without official charge remain to this day. There have been efficient films over the years touching on the subject, like Gavin Hood’s “Rendition,” and great documentaries like Alex Gibney’s “Taxi to the Dark Side,” but “The Mauritanian” is one of the first dramas based on a real experience. Salahi’s story can be chronicled because he eventually wrote a book, “Guantanamo Diary.” Screenwriters M.B. Tavern, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani chisel it all down into a movie that is half harrowing journey and half legal drama. The journey aspect is what works best. Out of all the characters Salahi is the best developed. We get to know him, his background, and get a sense of the scope of his dilemma. 

Macdonald’s best movies have found the human angle of individuals trapped in large events. His 2006 “The Last King of Scotland” followed a doctor wandering the court of dictator Idi Amin and his 2003 documentary “Touching the Void” is a terrifying, emotional saga of a climber abandoned in the Andes. In “The Mauritanian” Salahi’s experience is absolutely harrowing because he comes under the boot of the world’s mightiest power. The film at first gives him layers of mystery however, and skillfully demonstrates how easy it is to take certain facts to then condemn a person. Did Salahi receive a call from Bin Laden’s phone? Possibly, but was it Bin Laden himself? It’s hard to get to the bottom of anything because when Hollander requests documents they are heavily redacted, with entire passages marked out in black swipes. Like Oliver Stone’s “Snowden” we are given a tour of America’s recent underground history. We tout our democratic values, but once Holland and Teri enter Guantanamo they are informed the place is out of U.S. legal jurisdiction. Salahi also explains to his interrogators that yes, he did once train with future Al Qaeda figures, but in 1980s Afghanistan when they were receiving U.S. weapons to fight against the Soviet Union. More history that is conveniently brushed aside. 

When the film recreates Salahi’s experiences under interrogation and confinement the movie becomes a gut-wrenching, surreal series of nightmarish memories. The frame ratio is switched to 4:3 to add a more boxed in feel to Salahi’s reality in Gitmo. Waterboarding, freezing cells, sexually-charged harassment follows, all meant to break him down and confess to wider claims, including the accusation that he was a prime recruiter for Al Qaeda in Germany. When one then goes to look up the testimonials about interrogation at Guantanamo, it’s hard to then take seriously our critiques of abuses in Venezuela and elsewhere. Because September 11 was carried out by what amounted to a rogue insurgent group of extremists, the Bush White House found itself without a single nation state to target (that would change later with the illusion of WMDs in Iraq). And so individuals like Salahi, who happened to have the wrong cell phone at the wrong time, were swept up in the fever to show that someone would pay. This is made clear to Couch by his superiors, who nearly admit it doesn’t matter much if Salahi is actually guilty.

Macdonald gets some skillful performances out of a strong cast. Jodie Foster is both the hard-edged lawyer and hidden sentimentalist. Her Hollander isn’t just a crusader but does her work because she cares about her clients on a human level. Cumberbatch’s Couch is a classic southern gentleman as a soldier, who feels the inner torment of coming face to face with what’s being done in America’s name at Guantanamo. It is Tahar Rahim who skillfully takes on the center of the film. He makes Salahi a relatable character, who feels the stress of being kept away from his family under charges he has no way of fighting back against. His performance doesn’t use easy choices to make him feel compassionate to us. Instead he makes Salahi very regular, to the point where anyone could imagine themselves in his shoes. It also works better than the others because Foster and Cumberbatch are mostly made to provide the legal context of the story, Rahim could have easily carried the movie alone.

Two decades since Sept. 11 essentially inaugurated the 21st century and drama is still catching up to the different tolls in its aftermath. Salahi was trapped in what amounts to a secret war. “The Mauritanian” only captures a fraction of it, but it is nonetheless a harrowing and worthy story to tell. Good political movies inform and entertain, while hopefully inspiring viewers to then go do their own research. Macdonald has made the kind of drama that will surely inspire some viewers to go seek out the facts on what is still going on in Guantanamo. This is not old history. It is something still unresolved and ongoing to this very day. 

The Mauritanian” releases Feb. 12 in select cities.