Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Writers: Michael Bronner, Rory Haines, based on Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s memoir “Guantánamo Diary”
Cast: Tahar Rahim, Jody Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch, Shailene Woodley, Langley Kirkwood, Corey Johnson, Matthew Marsh
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/12/21
Opens: February 19, 2021
If you are following the events of the days just preceding the inauguration of Joseph Biden as President, you will see a division into two camps. One group, believing that the election was rigged, might well say that the violence of the far-right extremists who took over the Capitol was justified, given their disgust with what they consider fraud. The other folks, hopefully the greater number, were horrified watching the only attempted coup of the citadel of democracy since the British set fire to the building in 1814. This latter group, the more educated Americans, might well think: “With enemies like these domestic terrorists, who needs enemies?”
And when you consider the way that the American armed forces have acted for years in our country’s prison at Guantánamo, Cuba (itself an example of U.S. imperialism), torturing prisoners by blasting them with music, waterboarding (which gives the hapless victims the feeling of drowning), humiliating them in at least one case by dragging a man around on a leash, putting them into stress positions, i.e. bent over, for hours, you may say as well: If this is American democracy, who needs enemies from authoritarian regimes abroad?
As pointed out in the epilogue of “The Mauritanian,” Kevin Macdonald’s new, exciting, bold and horrifying film, one prisoner, Mohamedou Ould Slahi had been held for seven years without evidence and with just one hearing in a D.C. federal court where he was judged not guilty. And would you believe that the Obama administration appealed, leading the poor man to be kept a total of 14 years before being released to his home in Nouakchott, Mauritania? Filming in Mauritania and South Africa among other locations, Glaswegian director Macdonald, known mostly for his “The Last King of Scotland” about events surrounding the Uganda administration of Idi Amin, offers us an indictment of an infuriated America uninterested in due process. On Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, New York’s World Trade Center was attacked by two planes leading to 3,000 deaths. As a result, those charged with terrorism and held at our facility in Cuba would be denied a hearing, much less a fair trial. Seven hundred seventy-nine prisoners had been guests of the facility since 9/11. A mere handful were found not guilty and released.
The most interesting detainee would be Mohamedou Ould Slahi, principally because he wrote a book, actually four books, about his experiences there, adapted for Macdonald’s pulsating drama. The plot is unfolded with its center, Tahar Rahim, a gifted French performer of Algerian descent adept in French, Arabic, English, Scottish Gaelic and Corsican (he used his skills in the dynamic movie “The Prophet” about a prison holding people Corsicans mobsters and Muslims).
It doubtless took a man of exceptional intelligence to compose these tell-all books, and Slahi was exceptional enough to have received a scholarship in 1988 to study in Germany for a degree in electrical engineering. He joined the mujaheddin in Afghanistan, fighting against the Soviet occupation, a war in which the mujaheddin was backed by the U.S. So far so good. He trained with al Qaeda, one of the mujaheddin groups fighting a civil war, but instead of joining the fight he returned to Germany. His cousin al-Walid and other Qaeda members wrote to bin Laden opposing the planned 9/11 attacks. Slahi allegedly lodged three suspects for one night at his home in Germany in 1999. Not so good.
From what we gather in this film, the government had virtually no case, no evidence that Slahi was the prime mover of the 9/11 attacks or took part at all. Habeas corpus, the concept by which an arrested person must be advised of the evidence that causes him to be charged? Forget about it. The fury of President Bush from the first enemy attack in America since Pearl Harbor was joined by the American people, who seemed in no mood for giving those held at Gitmo the time of day. Hence the many years served in that prison camp by people held without charges.
You could not likely pick a better actor for the Slahi role than Rahim, who, judging by his multi-lingual skills comes across believable in his knowledge of English, learned largely from the guards, able to project his case to the movie audience. Serving as defense counsel, Jodie Foster takes the role of Nancy Hollander, determined to force the United States to live by the Constitution. She, together with an associate, Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) who would serve as a translator from French (not needed given the prisoner’s fluency in English), take their time gaining the man’s trust, persuading him to sign documents that would give her the rights of counsel, insisting that there is an attorney-client privilege. Only later did it come out that Slahi confessed, insisting to his counsel that the confession was beaten out of him, to which Hollander replies that the confession could therefore be thrown out. Opposing them for prosecution is Stu Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch)—a British actor who does quite a job with a southern American accent. He seems less than convinced at any point that the defendant is guilty, and will ultimately do the right thing. When he demonstrates his uneasiness, he gets the same kind of hell from the military that Hollander receives from the USA-USA crowd, which cannot believe that an American can plead a case for a man who obviously (they think) had a big role in 9/11.
Director Macdonald occasionally breaks chronology, going back to the accused man’s happy life in Mauritania, the praise he receives from others for getting that scholarship to Germany, the plan opposed by his mother who believes she will lose him. A dramatic scene during the opening shows a cultural festival in a country that most Americans probably never realized could house some of the bad guys, terrorists found largely in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.
Surreal tension break out during the final one-third of the film as we watch close-ups of the brutality of the military, sometimes playing good cop but in the end hitting Slahi with the most diabolical series of brutalities—the stress postures, the loud music, the sleep deprivation, even an episode with an army woman costumed in a cat mask humiliating him by sitting astride the man and “talking dirty.”
Jodie Foster may be the name that brings an audience to the theaters, but this is Tahar Rahmin’s movie. He is superb whether showing an ironic sense of humor, straining against his captors’ brutality, serving to convince us if we are not already believing, that some, and probably most of the current detainees in our wretched prison camp abroad are not guilty of the crimes with which they are…not even charged!
129 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall – A-