Starring Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim, Benedict Cumberbatch, Shailene Woodley, Zachary Levi, Saamer Usmani
Screenplay by M. B. Traven, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani
Story by M. B. Traven
Based on the book “Guantanamo Diary” by Mohamedou Ould Salahi
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Produced by Adam Ackland, Michael Bronner, Benedict Cumberbatch, Leah Clarke, Christine Holder, Mark Holder, Beatrisz Levin, Lloyd Levin, Branwen Prestwood-Smith
Cinematography by Alwin H. Luchler
Edited by Justine Wright
Music by Tom Hodge
“The Mauritanian,” a gripping, suspenseful, powerful and emotional story and film about the United States government’s sham arrest, illegal detention and illegal torture of a man suspected to be involved in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks but who is never charged and never proven through clear evidence to be such a terrorist, is an excellent film; an outstanding political statement; a work of importance on numerous cultural, societal, social, civic, governmental, criminal corruption, defense, intelligence, judicial, justice and historical levels; and simply a towering achievement for actors Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim and Benedict Cumberbatch, director Kevin Macdonald and all of the cast and crew on this film.
Yes, it’s only mid-February, 2021,and, speaking honestly, it can sometimes be somewhat irritating when people see a high-quality film early in a calendar year in which, on average, anywhere from 400 to 700 feature films can be released, and say this is “one of the best films of the year.” You can’t really say that about a movie until, well, most of the year has passed by! What folks should be saying when an excellent film is released early in a calendar year is that this film could very well likely possibly perhaps maybe be one of the best releases of the year, based on its high level of quality and the expectations that since the bar is set so high, it’s questionable whether a majority of films could equal that high level of quality. Yes, that’s still somewhat questionable–on the surface–but there’s some basis for taking the high ground early in the year, and that is because, year after year–speaking honestly again–most of those 400 to 700 feature films released each year are simply average or below average. This entire paragraph thus is speculative, generalizing and perhaps cynical, some will say. But it’s not. Most movies are simply not that great, and even out of those 400 to 700 feature films, again, year after year, a small number every year truly stand out from the rest.
Thus, it’s safe to say that, looking ahead, it’s quite possible that “The Mauritanian” could possibly perhaps maybe hold up–and should hold up–as a film to remember ten months from now as one of the better films of the year. Why? Because “The Mauritanian” excels so strongly, powerfully, emotionally, journalistically and historically on all levels, as noted–not just as entertainment, but as historical document, historical statement, a scathing indictment of United States governmental and political crime and corruption, a movie that raises more questions than it answers, a movie that encapsulates the mood and aura of an entire era, a movie that raises important questions about the very role and actions of an entire government, a movie that questions the constantly secret and often under-examined and under-investigated actions of the U.S.’s too-secret, too-conspiratorial, too-cloudy defense, intelligence and military justice operations, and as an overall statement on so many areas of worldwide, global importance–really–that a movie like this transcends most other movies. This is what “The Mauritanian” is about, and this is why the movie matters more than most films.
Too grand? Exaggerated? Over-excited? Wildly over-stated? No, not at all. Of course, there are thousands of movies that exist at this level of importance, we all know, but, once again, movies that rise up to levels of importance in regards to their subject matter–and still manage to entertain as a movie in regards to production, direction, acting and writing–are still rare. And, let’s face it, as many film observers have noted, there simply have not been enough strong, well-done, high-quality, intelligent feature films that succeed as governmental, political and historical statement and as quality entertainment in the 2000s. It’s sad to say, but movies like this used to be much more common and successful, and one of the major criticisms of movies from all quarters during the last twenty years has been the dire dearth of important, probing, journalistic, watchdog-oriented political and historical movie thrillers that entertain, inform and raise questions. Oh, of course, they’re there, and many have been noted, seen and praised, but there’s just not enough of them. Studios in recent years have too often decamped from more importantly-themed movies, in general, in favor of big-budget, frothy fluff, spectacle and special effects, explosions and gunfights, and general cotton candy popcorn forget-me-yes movies. That, too, is fact.
So when a film as strong and powerful and moving as “The Mauritanian” comes along and delivers a broadside wallop of seething, fiery, damning political statement, it’s worth the time to make the praise and take the notice of the movie. Much like similar quality films in recent years that have raised continually relevant and important governmental and political questions like “Vice,” “The Big Short,” “Munich,” “Bridge of Spies,” “Lincoln,” “State of Play,” “Syriana,” “Argo,” “The Ides of March,” “The Last King of Scotland,” “Spy Game,” “The Bank Job” and “Operation Finale,” among others, “The Mauritanian” serves as a wake-up call, warning and alarm that all is not well in the U.S. government in many areas, all is not well with the U.S. defense, intelligence and judicial systems in general, and, twenty years later, the United States still has not, will not and cannot fully recover from, learn from and adjudicate properly the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that coldly, brutally, barbarically murdered nearly 3,000 innocent people, injured an estimated 25,000 people, and negatively changed the United States in numerous nightmarish ways and means.
“The Mauritanian” tells the gripping, horrid and horrific nightmare story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, a young man, soldier, suspected terrorist (by certain elements of the U.S. military and intelligence communities) and former mujahideen operative from Mauritania who is questioned, detained, and ultimately illegally and wrongly imprisoned at the United States military’s horrorshow, torture chamber and supposed prison facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba after the 9/11 attacks. The problem is, as numerous people on the right side of criminal justice note in the movie and in real life: Salahi is never formally charged–by anyone; the highly-suspect reasons provided by military and intelligence officials for his detention were always questionable from the start; the highly-suspect “confessions” that military and intelligence officials point to as reasons for confining Salahi were believed by his defenders to have been obtained under illegal torture and illegal duress; and Salahi was subsequently illegally tortured–by United States of America military and intelligence soldiers, grunts, operatives, spies, interrogators and officials at the corrupt Guantanamo Bay facility–by people whose salaries were paid by American taxpayers; and U.S. officials for years refused to grant Salahi his basic judicial rights to fair hearings. All of this is true. All of this happened. And all of this is starkly, brutallay, tensely and boldly presented in “The Mauritanian.”
Tahar Rahim steals the movie with his intense, moving, human and humane portrayal of the, yes, likeable Salahi, who is presented in the film as a most-likely innocent man simply fighting for his basic rights. Some viewers, yes, may even believe the military and intelligence officials who insist that he was indeed an al Qaeda terrorist and could have been allegedly involved with 9/11 planning, as his accusers alleged, but, still, as his lawyers and even the military official assigned to prosecute him come to realize, even if he was guilty, he still deserved his basic legal rights, legal representation, his day in court, and he certainly did not deserve years of being imprisoned without a formal charge and years of life-destroying, sadistic, barbaric, brutal–and illegal–torture. Rahim as Salahi presents a strong, steady portrait of a continually dignified man who maintains that dignity and pride despite enduring the very worst torture and confinement horrors imaginable. And Rahim presents a talented mental, physical and emotional performance that delivers on all levels. Salahi stands up to his parade of psychotic and sadistic torturers and interrogators for years, and he never gives in completely, and Rahim portrays this bravery, courage and honor of a man who flatly refuses to give up his fight through a memorable, able and bold acting performance. Rahim (“A Prophet,” “The Looming Tower,” “Mary Magdalene”) thoroughly carries the movie and delivers a bravuro performance.
Fortunately for Salahi, in real life, a crusading, trailblazing, dedicated and caring pair of civic-minded and justice-minded lawyers, Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) decided to take up Salahi’s case when presented with the unusual circumstances of a young man being detained at a questionable prison facility without ever being formally charged. Hollander and Duncan know from the start that something is wrong with the government’s treatment of Salahi, and they embark on their own equally brave and courageous battle to represent Salahi, get him the proper legal advice and counsel that he deserved, and, possibly get him a court case or even a dismissal if he was indeed innocent and wrongly held.
Jodie Foster and Shailene Woodley provide strong performances as Hollander and Duncan. These two strong lawyers wage their own legal war against a convoluted, corrupt and crazy web of deceit and deception throughout the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, the military justice system, and the flat-out criminal and corrupt monsters, ogres and sadistic torturers running the sideshow horrorshow at Guantanamo Bay. While Hollander and Duncan endure their own legal, defense and intelligence worlds of white collar, psychological, government and political paper, red tape and bureaucratic torture, working every day on Salahi’s case, meanwhile, about 1,200 miles away, Salahi was regularly being tortured by his captors in the most horrific, psychotic ways.
The movie builds momentum steadily as Hollander and Duncan work their legal case, filing motion after motion, meeting with official after official–and unlocking layers of quite surprising conspiracies, cover-ups, hidden documents and secret files relating not just to Salahi, but to 9/11, other terrorists and the madness that is Guantanamo Bay and the military justice system. And, again, meanwhile, Salahi endures endless months and years of illegal torture that no man or woman should endure–too-small cells, lack of basic needs, lack of sleep, loud music played in his cell, beatings, waterboardings, suffocation from the waterboardings, forced sexual encounters, brutal temperatures, shackles, and even, unbelievably, an incident in which his U.S. torturers put a black hood over Salahi, took him out in a motorboat, held Salahi’s head in the water, and ran the motorboat, dragging Salahi’s head through the water as the boat ran. All of this, by the way, was approved by Donald Rumsfeld.
Amazingly, despite all of the illegalities, lack of charges, torture, beatings and other inhumane treatment, Hollander and Duncan discover that a legal rule allows Salahi to keep diaries while he is imprisoned–and Hollander and Duncan can see those diaries and keep them as legal documents. This is amazing on numerous levels, but most amazingly, Salahi simply documents in plain, clear language his illegal torture and illegal, inhumane imprisonment and treatment at Guantanamo Bay!
Meanwhile, an initially straight-by-the-book military prosecutor is assigned to Salahi’s case, and his initial intention is to forge ahead with a prosecution of Salahi at any cost, no matter what–which is the general insane, misguided approach that was held by many U.S. officials in the crazed wake of 9/11. However, soon enough, the prosecutor, Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), comes to see the light of justice, much like Hollander and Duncan, and soon he’s questioning the actions and motivations of military and intelligence officials, too. Thus, a third strong plotline of the film follows Couch has he navigates the same webs of corruption, lies and deceit, albeit from the inside looking out, instead of the outside looking in, like Hollander, Duncan and Salahi. Cumberbatch, who’s on an impressive acting streak in recent years (including portraying Dr. Strange, Sherlock Holmes, Smaug and Kahn!) turns in another impressive performance. Couch, too, undergoes his own journey of discovery, understanding and redemption.
Soon enough, and it’s not giving anything away, Hollander, Duncan and Salahi and even Couch all come to actually work together courageously to provide the justice–and freedom–that Salahi deserves in terms of his basic legal, judicial, governmental, civic and civil rights.
Credit the consistently solid, talented and confident director Kevin Macdonald (“State of Play,” “The Last King of Scotland,” “One Day in September”) for another intelligent, powerful, emotional film. Macdonald knows how to get solid, human, down-to-earth, yet still gripping, performances from his actors. And he has a talent for directing suspenseful, highly-watchable political and governmental thrillers that hold the viewer’s attention. Screenwriters M. B. Traven, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani, working from Salahi’s own story as the primary source, have also crafted a solid political and legal dramatic thriller, with intelligent, insightful dialogue, strong layers of plot and subplot, and equally strong layers of solid story, plot and character development.
It’s no spoiler to reveal that Mohamedou Ould Salahi was eventually released from his unjust imprisonment after fourteen years. That’s fourteen years of illegal imprisonment and torture–without ever being formally charged with a crime and, until the very end, never being provided his legal right to a fair trial. Salahi was finally released from prison in October, 2016, and he promptly returned to his family and friends in Mauritania. Again, he had been illegally imprisoned for the previously fourteen years–since 2002.
Salahi published a book of his diaries about his detention at Guantanamo Bay, “Guantanamo Diary,” in January, 2015, while he was still imprisoned. The book has since become an international bestseller. Today, in 2021, Salahi is living a normal life in Mauritania, with a wife and child.
As noted, Salahi’s story, the story of other detainees at Guantanamo Bay and other illegal secret defense and CIA prisons, and the story of the use of torture by U.S. officials, soldiers, agents, interrogators, spies and operatives raises a warehouse full of still-pertinent, still-relevant questions:
–Donald Rumsfeld himself signed off on the illegal torture tactics by U.S. officials and employees. He worked for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Why weren’t Rumsfeld, Bush and Cheney directly investigated and charged with the illegal use of torture against prisoners and other alleged war crimes?
–Why weren’t Bush and Obama administration defense and intelligence officials investigated and charged with illegal judicial detainment, detention and imprisonment of prisoners without formal charges and access to quick and fair trials?
–Why were barbaric, psychotic and sadistic torture practices utilized and allowed against Salahi and at Guantanamo Bay in general?
–Why weren’t the soldiers, spies, agents, interrogators, officials and operatives who carried out the illegal torture against prisoners investigated, charged, arrested–and tossed in jail themselves? And who, exactly, were the people who committed this torture?
–Why on earth is the Guantanamo Bay prison facility still operating in 2021–twenty long years after the 9/11 attacks?
–Why hasn’t the U.S. government apologized and compensated Salahi for the illegal treatment that he endured?
–How on earth did the United States government, which constantly and consistently scolds and lectures other countries about human, civic, civil, legal and governmental rights, hypocritically commit crimes against humanity in the wake of 9/11 by conducting a war under false pretenses and information and lies; conduct war crimes; conduct illegal imprisonment; deny prisoners their basic rights; and commit nightmarish, horrific and illegal torture against illegally-detained human beings?
–Where is the justice and retribution against the people in the United States government, military and intelligence communities who committed these crimes?
And it should be noted that none of this is biased or prejudiced from one political or partisan side as presented here–these same questions have been presented publicly by liberals, conservatives, centrists and independents, by members of the Democratic, Republican, Reform and Independent parties, and by people of literally all types around the world during the last twenty years. Thus, while viewers will leave “The Mauritanian” satisfied in terms of enjoying an excellent, probing film, viewers will also leave the film with these questions swirling and twirling around their heads. And that’s the best response and reaction that a great political thriller can hope to achieve. Hopefully, one day, all of us will get the answers we deserve to these questions.