I had the pleasure of stumbling upon the film headlined ‘The Mauritanian’ on Amazon Prime yesterday and decided to take the plunge and watch what looked like I (wrongly) assumed to be a John Grisham movie adaptation.
It had that feel to it, of a fast-moving thriller filled with acute and interesting legal drama that would progress with a series of fascinating discoveries of conspiracy, wider problems being covered up alongside the possibility even of danger and death.
Well, the Mauritanian had all of those things and more; is a true story, and doesn’t have John Grisham anywhere to be seen.
Based upon the 2015 memoir Guantanamo Diaries by Mohamedou Ould Slahi – the film follows the experiences of his wrongful 14-year incarceration, where has was held without charge for over a decade.
It was pretty exciting to see a star lineup with Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim, and Benedict Cumberbatch in the movie.
I’ve never seen Tahar Rahim (the French-Algerian) who plays Slahi in a movie before. It was so refreshing to see an accused 9/11 instigator play the role of an articulate, wrongfully accused Muslim; and break free form any type-case sort of role.
Slahi is originally from Mauritania and received a scholarship to study in Germany where he became an electrical engineer. We see glimpses of his life in both Mauritania and Germany and recognise he’s a gifted young man.
However, upon his return home, he attracts the interest of the American government as it seems that his cousin who was involved with al Qaeda called Slahi from Osama Bin Laden’s satellite phone.
Whilst Slahi is repeatedly questioned over the years, things take a turn the year after (2002) 9/11 and lead to Slahi ultimately being taken to Guantanamo.
Slahi is plucked from the wedding he is attending and goes along peacefully with the authorities expecting it to be the same as before….which it isn’t.
The Mauritanian – as he is called in the movie attracts the attention of human rights crusader Nancy Hollander. Especially as Slahi is incarcerated for years with no outside contract and without the usual comforts granted to prisoners held under American Law – or even the Geneva Convention
We then witness several intertwined plotlines playout – from Slahi’s childhood, his time in Germany, the full arrest scene at his family wedding – and importantly the central storyline – the legal drama we step into.
On the side of the defense, there is Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) alongside Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) who volunteers to represent Slahi. On the side of the prosecution, we have the Christian marine and military lawyer – Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch).
As we watch the plot unfold we see the systematic attempts by various elements of the US Government to stall the legal process and attempt to box Hollander into a position of giving up.
This ranges from having all conversations recorded, having any evidence in possession withheld, and having any letters leaving Guantanamo to read and censored where necessary. This is notwithstanding the blatant cover-up of legal information that’s heavily redacted to the point it’s almost useless by the time it reaches Hollander.
Director Kevin Macdonald – (also the director of The Last King Of Scotland) – does a wonderful job of depicting the warped and dreamlike enhanced interrogation methods employed by the US Government to get Slahi to wrongfully confess. This is all a consequence of Slahi ultimately revealing the true nature of his time at Guantanamo as Hollander requires him to provide some evidence of his time there as the evidence left unsullied by the US Government only seems to reveal Slahi’s confessions and therefore guilt.
But then we learn of the non-stop heavy metal music, the standing in stress positions for hours each day, the waterboarding, being beaten up and abused unrelentingly.
We learn of this through both the eyes of Hollander and Couch – as Hollanders learns of this through Slahi’s letters. Couch learns of this through the reading of the real actual documentation of Slahi’s time at Guantanamo.
It’s at this point that Couch – who is depicted as a military lifer, proud Christian, and a former fighter pilot who had a close friend and fellow serviceman from flight school die during 9/11….spin 180 degrees.
This is because Slahi’s innocence is established relatively early on and then the plot focuses upon Hollander’s attempts in vain to have him released and ultimately it being Couch’s intervention that changes the course of habeas corpus.
It is Couch’s decision to resign from his post as he realises that the confession is worthless as it was given under extreme duress, and as a Christian, he feels unwilling to continue prosecuting this case that leads to his support of the ‘opposition’.
Assuming Slahi is ultimately proven to be guilty of course – which he is.
My Thoughts On The Movie
Well you know me by now – if I’m writing about a movie – it means I really enjoyed it.
I’ve read some of the reviews online which say this follows the usual legal trope of an innocent man who has been wronged and has a lawyer fighting for his freedom.
It’s a trope that works, and when set against the clandestine nature of Guantanamo it makes it even headier.
It’s a place I know little about and isn’t something I’ve watched a movie about – and watching Rahim play Slahi so brilliantly was a fascinating case study for me. To watch a man grow up in an environment he has little control over, and to be wronged by circumstances and nothing to do with anything he has actually done.
With that being said, there are moments throughout the movie – where Slahi deletes the contacts from his cell phone at his family wedding, where we read his confessions, where we see his unwillingness to discuss why he lied about having written a confession….alongside memories of his training with Al Qaeda.
Those training days were between 1990 and 1992 and were on the same side as the American government – and we’re not given much more information than that as to his time there.
Those dates I picked up from outside reading – and this is where he maintains he severed all connections with Al Qaeda.
The performances of Foster and Rahim are outstanding – and are what really drew me into the movie.
Moments when Hollander discovers Slahi’s confession and it causes him to momentarily question her approach are powerful. This is alongside Rahim’s whole demeanor throughout the movie.
Definitely, a movie that I enjoyed watching and is one that will yes cause me to go and read the Guantanamo Diaries.