After the attack on the World Trade Center, there was widespread support for punishing those suspected of helping to plan and carry out that mission. Many who were swept up by our military and imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay never received their day in court. Instead they were held without due process for years, often tortured to confess to crimes they didn’t commit.
This dark period in U.S. history is brought to the screen by the Scottish director, Kevin McDonald. The film is based on the true story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian who was arrested after 9/11 and held at Guantanamo for more than a dozen years. Learning English while imprisoned, he published a memoir, Guantanamo Diary, recounting in vivid detail what he experienced as a detainee. The book became a bestseller. He was finally released in 2016, and returned to Mauritania, although there are those who still believe he may have somehow been involved in the 9/11 terrorist attack.
Putting aside Slahi’s innocence or guilt, The Mauritanian focuses on the abandonment of the American legal system in favor of one where the military often used torture to obtain confessions. While the world watched, the U.S. seemed to have thrown out the playbook by which someone accused of a crime was entitled to the type of justice that is routinely displayed in TV shows like Law & Order.
Jodie Foster, seen too infrequently in films these days, plays defense attorney Nancy Hollander, whose elevated status at her law firm allows her to take on the controversial defense of Slahi. Needing an associate, Hollander taps Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), who at first resists being pulled off another high profile case, but finally agrees, saying she at least gets to visit Cuba.
But the section of Cuba where “Gitmo” is housed is hardly an island paradise. And while Holland and Duncan are allowed entry, their reception is far from warm and the rules governing what they can take in and out of the compound overly restrictive. From the get go, Hollander knows this case will be an uphill battle. The case against Slahi rests on two facts: that he received a phone call from Osama Bin Laden’s line, and that he had been affiliated with al-Qaida, albeit when that group was aligned with the Americans.
Prosecuting the case is Lt. Col. Stuart Crouch (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose initial motivation comes from having a friend, former military, who was piloting one of the planes that crashed on 9/11. Since most of the information surrounding Slahi’s arrest remains classified, Crouch can’t share much of the information collected by the government with Hollander, thus hampering her defense. She focuses on habeas corpus, a writ requiring someone under arrest to be granted a hearing before a judge to challenge an unlawful detention and imprisonment. Even that strategy, which seems straightforward, runs into numerous roadblocks, increasing Slahi’s stay at Gitmo and resulting in a confession he gives after being subjected to unimaginable torture.
It’s not the first time a film about 9/11 has included scenes of torture, perhaps the most recent and horrifying were those in Zero Dark Thirty, directed by Kathryn Bigelow and starring Jessica Chastain. In The Mauritanian’s two hours-plus, these scenes are graphic and lengthy. We could have absorbed the outrage and alarm without such extensive footage. However, director McDonald doesn’t shy away from shocking the viewer. His The Last King of Scotland included scenes that were difficult, if not impossible, to watch.
While all the performances are strong, particularly Foster’s (will we ever see her on screen without thinking of Clarice Starling?), the film belongs to Tahar Rahim, the French actor who brings humanity to the role of Slahi. Because Rahim is largely unknown to American audiences, he disappears into the character. That he doesn’t look or act like a militant terrorist, even being deferential to the military officers harming him, makes Slahi sympathetic, someone worthy of consideration by an American justice system that has abandoned him.
More Americans die each day from Covid-19 than died on 9/11, a statistic that serves to emphasize the seriousness of the pandemic, but to some may unintentionally dismiss the lives lost in that terrorist attack. Those responsible for 9/11 needed to be tracked down and punished. But under our legal system, someone is considered innocent until proven guilty. The Mauritanian reminds us of that sacred principle of American justice that once upon a time was lost.
Top photo: Jodie Foster
Credit: Graham Bartholomew, TM Films, SunnyMarch
The Mauritanian will open in theaters on February 12, 2021.