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'The Mauritanian'

by Piers Marchant | February 19, 2021 at 1:42 a.m.

If the adage about true character being revealed only in times of challenging crisis holds water, then we, as a country, have failed this test pretty conclusively. We spout on about being the world's stolid bastion of liberty and personal rights, but when push ever comes to shove, our government -- and a large swath of our population -- has shown a shameful propensity to ignore any Constitutional by-laws that get in the way of our petty aims.

This is hardly a new development. As Kevin McDonald's factual procedural drama "The Mauritanian" points out, in fact, it is pretty quick to happen every time the country's leadership feels threatened, either from abroad or at home. The fact-based film (no equivocating from Macdonald and screenwriter Michael Bonner here, the film opens with the straightforward disclaimer "This is a true story") concerns a Guantanamo prisoner named Mohamedu Ould Slahi (played by Tahar Rahim) held for years without even a formal accusation to keep him there.

In the chaotic frenzy of post-9/11 military retribution (with then VP Dick Cheney warning that we would need to journey over to the "dark side" in order to secure justice), any suspected al-Qaeda operative was subject to be swooped upon by the CIA, and whisked away to Guantanamo, a remote base in Cuba situated, as the film notes, outside of U.S. jurisdiction, but still under their control. Once there, utilizing the terrible "enhanced interrogation techniques" authorized by Don Rumsfeld, then the U.S. Secretary of Defense, the prisoners would be subject to any number of tortures, physical and emotional, in an attempt to "break" them into divulging valuable intel about their comrades.

Slahi was in particular trouble, as he was labeled the "head recruiter" for al-Qaeda's 9/11 initiative. At the time the film begins, in 2005, he had already been held for three years without formal charges brought before him. After the Supreme Court eventually ruled that prisoners could petition for habeas corpus, giving them a chance at finally being either formally accused of a crime or released, a wave of civil rights lawyers were brought in to represent them.

In Slahi's case, he gets assigned a New Mexico-based lawyer named Nancy Hollander (played by a gray-haired Jodie Foster), and her co-counsel, Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley). The women find him somewhat difficult to work with at first. It's not a bad attitude, exactly, he shows keen intelligence and a gentle nature, but his reluctance to speak to them freely, even given client/attorney privilege, and his refusal at first to give them an honest accounting of his experience at the secret base, proves a significant hurdle.

Meanwhile, the government forms a vigorous prosecution team, led by former U.S. Marine Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), a military lawyer whose friend was actually killed in the 9/11 attack. As Couch and Hollander attempt to collect discovery documents they can use in the case, however, they hit a similar sort of brick wall. For Couch, he can't gain access to the actual field notes Slahi's interrogators took, and instead is allowed only summary documents, useless for the purposes of a courtroom; for Hollander, all the boxes of case files the government reluctantly gives to her team are redacted to the point of being utterly useless.

Macdonald's film re-creates some of the misery of Slahi, and his fellow prisoners, held at Guantanamo -- his windowless cell, about the size of a midsize SUV, has barely enough room for a small cot and sink -- but the director saves the true horror for near the end, when the appalling treatment Slahi and other prisoners received at the hands of torture agents is finally revealed. Clearly, the agents were all too happy to reduce him to a shambling, traumatized shell, in order to coerce a confession (notwithstanding the final conclusion that torture doesn't, in fact, even work as an intel-gaining process -- it has been proved a person being tortured will declare anything they think their interrogators want to hear in order to make the pain stop).

Despite its obvious political bent, the film doesn't spare either side (after President George W. Bush and Cheney are finally deposed, the new Barack Obama regime dispenses with torture, but still pointlessly fights to keep Slahi imprisoned for an additional seven years), which paints a troubling portrait of a country all too keen to sell out its morality when it becomes inconvenient to do otherwise.

Keeping to a strictly factual account, the film also dodges many of the melodramatic pratfalls that befall many such films -- we learn very little about the lawyers' inner lives, for example, other than Couch's Christian conscience makes it impossible for him to continue with the case after he's finally allowed to read the actual interrogation reports -- which, while commendably no-nonsense, makes for a strictly sober account (the screenplay is based largely on Slahi's book, "Guantanamo Diary," containing the letters he wrote to his lawyers, which eventually revealed the depth of his miserable treatment). Much like "The Report," another fact-based narrative film about the U.S. government's adoption of torture, it makes for a better history lesson than engaging human drama, but that doesn't make it any less necessary.

Faith is only as strong as it is in the worst of times, when it's put to the test. Our Constitution and Bill of Rights are hallmarks of a fledgling democracy, but they remain viable only when their principles are upheld during challenging times. As Macdonald's film painfully displays, much as we might want to exalt them as soaring examples of higher truths, in the end, without strict adherence to their principles, they're just a bunch of words and flourishes written on aging sheets of paper.

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‘The Mauritanian’

86 Cast: Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zachary Levi, Saamer Usmani, Stevel Marc

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Rating: R, for violence including a sexual assault, and language

Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes

In theaters


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