As we wipe our collective brow after the four-year fever that was the Trump administratio the temptation remains to call him the worst president in our history. For whatever reason, long-term amnesia has set in for the sins of previous presidencies. Lest we never forget, the new film “The Mauritanian” is here to remind us of Bush-era transgressions.
“The Mauritanian” is directed by Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”) from a script by Michael Bronner, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani. The time is the opening years of this century, with the U.S. still reeling from the attacks of 9/11 and determined not to let them be repeated. Into such a trap thus falls the Mauritanian of the title, Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim), who is whisked away far from home and lands at Guantanamo. Like so many, Slahi is held for years without charges, his legal status ambiguous and his hopes all but nonexistent.
Could Slahi in fact not be a terrorist? An attorney by the name of Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster, steely and compelling) believes that the U.S. military may in fact be holding an innocent man at the Cuban prison. Well, if not innocent—Slahi’s connections to al Qaeda were documented, though he eventually renounced the group—at least not the hardened bad guys the Bush administration was after. But the Bush and Cheney apparatus is convinced that Slahi was an active recruiter for Bin Laden, and thus his detention at Gitmo is righteous.
Another believer in the cause is the military’s prosecutor Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), who was close friends with one of the pilots murdered by the terrorists on that day. Couch is determined to see justice meted out, and he cannot comprehend why Hollander would want to see Slahi not only defended, but set free.
While the movie’s stars Foster and Cumberbatch will help to draw in audiences, the heart and soul of the film belongs to Rahim (featured image), a French actor of Algerian descent who has appeared in films on both sides of the Atlantic, not least of which, 2009’s “A Prophet.” Rahim carries the burden of bringing our sympathies to a man whom we are meant to question. What if the government is right and he is a monster?
Great sections of “The Mauritanian” deal with Slahi’s time in Gitmo, where he is gradually taught by a fellow prisoner how to speak English (initially their shared language is French). The more English Slahi learns, the better is he able to interact with his captors, eventually referring to several military and CIA personnel by their first names—such familiarity would be natural for someone detained without trial for nearly a decade and a half.
But in between such humanizing moments are the horrific tortures Slahi alleged he was subjected to. Sleep deprivation, heavy metal music played at a high volume and stress positions are just the beginning of his descent into hell. He is further humiliated when a masked female guard grinds herself against him while hurling insults at him, textbook sexual assault.
This is all painful to see, and as “The Mauritanian” plows onward, not only do we realize they have the wrong man, but so, too, does the government. But admit to such a mistake? Never. Thus it’s up to Hollander and her team of legal eagles to challenge the government’s narrative.
Doubtless there will be apologists who attack this film with, “if there was even a one percent chance” of a future attack, taking such steps was necessary. Let’s say that 99 percent (a rather generous figure) of those scooped up in this dragnet were bad guys. That still leaves one percent needlessly, and amorally, held without due process.
As our politicians are so fond of saying, “this is not who we are.”
“The Mauritanian” opens today.