Movie Review: ‘The Mauritanian’ Tries to Confront America’s Accountability but is Outweighed by Patriotism
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Writer: Michael Bronner, Rory Haines, Sohrab Noshirvani
Stars: Tahar Rahim, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zachari Levi, Jodie Foster, Alaa Safi, Corey Johnson
Synopsis: A defense attorney, her associate, and a military prosecutor uncover a conspiracy while investigating the case of a suspected 9/11 terrorist imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The War on Terror has proven to be one of the most controversial policies of the United States in modern history. In international law, the actions taken by the U.S. government after 9/11 have created a legal mess with zero accountability for multiple human rights and international humanitarian law violations on suspected combatants with alleged links to Al-Qaeda.
One of the biggest question marks is the status of Guantanamo Bay, a military prison located in Cuba that has been used since the Bush administration to detain terrorist suspects. It is not under American jurisdiction and the conditions in which its prisoners are held are inhumane and deplorable, violating multiple sources of international law and existing in a legal loophole.
These two issues – the War on Terror and the human rights violations in Guantanamo – are explored in The Mauritanian, the latest movie by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play). It examines the real story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim), a man who would spend fourteen years in Guantanamo under unsubstantiated accusations of being an Al-Qaeda combatant and recruiter of one of the plane hijackers of the 9/11 attacks.
The story is presented through three fronts. First, we meet Salahi in 2001. He is in Mauritania celebrating a relative’s wedding when American soldiers “request” his help to locate his cousin, an Osama Bin Laden aid, and resulting on his detention. The story jumps to 2005 when human rights lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) stumbles upon his case and decides to represent him. By now, Salahi has been in Guantanamo for four years. Lastly, at the same time, Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) is assigned as the military prosecutor with the mission of getting Salahi the death penalty.
Although the movie constantly forgets its main character, Tahar Rahim remains committed to his role and gives a memorable performance. He responds to the script and plays his character with ambiguity and charm. While his mysterious characterization is unfair to the real person, Rahim is effective on the role. The same can be said about Jodie Foster and Shailene Woodley as Hollander’s associates. They offer much more than what the script gives them. Benedict Cumberbatch, unfortunately, is one of the weakest links. He is distracting and uses an uneven accent.
The movie would be more satisfying if it focused more on the issues of human rights violations and lack of accountability in Guantanamo and less in the thriller tropes that make us question Salahi’s innocence. The movie toys with our assumptions about his character. Is he innocent or is he really a terrorist? Is his imprisonment in Guantanamo justifiable because of his unavoidable link with Osama Bin Laden? It is unfair that the real-life victim needs to earn our sympathy, and more considering the vast information, we have regarding the treatment of alleged combatants in this internment center.
With more than two hours of running time, The Mauritanian is a rollercoaster of accomplishments and failures. It is remarkable when it exhibits the obstacles that the U.S. government puts in the acquisition of information regarding the War on Terror, as well as the multiple challenges Hollander faces in her defense of Salahi, including the lack of access to his case files, the censorship of crucial information in official reports, and the impossibility of using vital evidence in court. In this regard, the movie shares a direct link with the superior The Report (2019).
The movie accurately portrays the hypocrisy and mind games of American officials regarding the U.S. involvement in foreign issues. The way they try to deny their involvement in the Soviet-Afghan War and the rise of Al-Qaeda is astounding and infuriating. It also exposes the way U.S. officials use discourse, passion, and patriotism, instead of reason and proof, to imprison innocent people and propel their agendas. It is not a matter of culpability, but rather of having someone to blame.
In this regard, it is commendable that the movie does not shy away from showing scenes of torture. Through an experimental and nightmarish lens, Macdonald presents the multiple violations of international law by the United States through Salahi’s case, including the imprisonment of suspects without charge, their detention in different places of the world in undisclosed locations, the torture techniques through a long and almost unbearable sequence (some of the takes and close-ups in the movie are questionable and unrefined), and the illegal and baseless internment of suspects in Guantanamo.
The Mauritanian’s biggest hindrance, however, is not what it exposes, but how it does it. The story is more about the American people surrounding Salahi that stand for justice and legality – even against their compatriots – and not about Salahi himself. It turns out that Lt. Couch and Hollander are two of the most righteous people in the United States, focused on uncovering the truth, getting outraged once they find it, and going against the system to right some of the wrongs that multiple people within several administrations have allowed. The story celebrates these characters through their resilience of finding the truth about their country and being patriotic enough to do something about it. Consequently, Salahi’s case becomes a means to celebrate their sense of justice.
This detriment in the story also reflects in Salahi himself. In one of the most frustrating scenes, he praises the United States – the country that has kept him illegally imprisoned for years – in an impassioned speech. Considering that the real-life figure is known for having optimistic and non-resentful feelings towards his captors, it makes sense that this story was brought to the big screen. This story is a celebration of America and what Americans think they are, and not who they really are.
It is impossible not to think about the current issues that surround the United States regarding accountability and patriotism while watching The Mauritanian. The movie does not offer a true reckoning regarding the acts of the United States under international law. It works more as a simple lesson of morality and indignation. Its mere existence feels shallow when we remember that the legal status of Guantanamo Bay, the constant human rights violations, and the lack of accountability and reparation continue to exist in a limbo because of a refusal to offer satisfying solutions.
The movie’s patriotism and self-congratulatory tone are too loud to ignore. Should we be content with films that address the lack of American accountability only as a moral lesson instead of recognizing the profound impact it continues to have on thousands of people? Or should we start to expect real answers?
It is a triumph that The Mauritanian exposes such a delicate issue. However, by offering a sentimental and manipulative look – and always through the eyes of American people – on the War on Terror, it praises the American point of view, degrading the humanity of those that are directly affected by it.