When Jodie Foster first strides into the Guantanamo Bay detention center in “The Mauritanian,” you may find yourself stifling a smile, even under such thoroughly mirthless circumstances. It’s a grim descent, preceded by barbed-wire fences, tight security checks and warnings about what to do (don’t panic, sit tight) if a detainee happens to lunge across the table. Still, as long marches down hellish prison corridors go, it’s arguably preferable to the walk Foster took 30 years ago in “The Silence of the Lambs”: This time, she’s not an anxious FBI trainee but a seasoned defense attorney, and the captive in shackles who awaits her has yet to be charged with a single crime.
He is Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian detainee suspected of having been involved in planning the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He’s played here by excellent French actor Tahar Rahim, who — in another slyly referential bit of casting — came to prominence as the prisoner-protagonist of Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet.” So the sight of Slahi sitting down with his counsel, Nancy Hollander (Foster), can’t help but carry an oddly reassuring movie-movie charge. We may be in a gritty simulation of Gitmo, a hellhole whose name has become shorthand for unspeakable crimes against humanity. But we are also in a familiar Hollywood or at least Hollywood-adjacent zone, where beautiful faces and brutal headlines reliably and sometimes incongruously converge.
Directed by Kevin Macdonald from a script by M.B. Traven, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani, “The Mauritanian” is a busy, well-meaning but fundamentally miscalculated quasi-adaptation of “Guantanamo Diary” (2015), the memoir that Slahi wrote and published during his long detainment. The book became an international bestseller and played a crucial role in securing Slahi’s release in 2016, by which time he had spent 14 years at Guantanamo and endured horrific physical and psychological abuse, still never having been charged with any offense.
Heavily redacted on initial release but republished in an uncensored version in 2017, Slahi’s book offered an astonishing first-person account of those horrors: beatings, sexual assault, sleep deprivation, exposure to freezing-cold temperatures and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques approved by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. We see some of them re-enacted late in the movie, in a hallucinatory, strobe-lit montage that amounts to a ferocious sensory and imagistic assault. Deployed for strategic shock value, it’s at once unendurable and, considering the lived trauma being depicted, nowhere near unendurable enough. (To distinguish them from the main narrative, these scenes, along with brief flashbacks to Slahi’s earlier years, are framed in a tighter aspect ratio by the excellent cinematographer Alwin Küchler.)
A more scrupulous or at least realistic film about Slahi’s detainment probably would have featured more torture scenes, and in more spread-out, less concentrated doses. But while Macdonald has a facile touch with true stories, in dramas (“The Last King of Scotland”) as well as documentaries (“Touching the Void”), “The Mauritanian” isn’t really about Slahi’s detention, even if it initially suggests otherwise. The movie opens in November 2001, two months after 9/11, in Mauritania, where Slahi, a 30-year-old electrical engineer, is picked up by local authorities and forced to bid his mother an abrupt farewell. But rather than following his agonizing journey — he’s shuttled via extraordinary rendition to interrogation sites in Jordan and Afghanistan before finally being thrown into Guantanamo Bay in August 2002 — the movie leaps ahead several years, seeking out secondary protagonists and freer, less immobilized perspectives.
These narrative distractions are an obvious relief for the audience, even as they represent a retreat into conventionality and a failure of nerve on the part of the filmmakers. Still, the approach can be plausibly defended, up to a point, as part of the movie’s intended aim, which is to remind us anew of the human rights violations committed under the George W. Bush administration (and in some cases continued under the Obama administration) in the name of bringing the architects of 9/11 to justice. Some of the first individuals to learn of those violations were lawyers, like Hollander and her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), who take on Slahi’s case in 2004, working to earn his trust and secure his release through a habeas corpus petition. Meanwhile, the task of prosecuting Slahi falls to a Marine veteran, Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch, trying out a heavy Southern accent), whose close friendship with one of the airline pilots killed on 9/11 gives him an especially personal investment in the outcome.
These actors are never less than agreeable company: Few can project icy professionalism as magnetically as Foster, and Hollander’s good-cop-bad-cop routine with Duncan is almost as diverting as her genial face-offs with Couch. The script draws a few tidy but effective contrasts between Hollander, a practiced skeptic who doesn’t care about her clients’ innocence or guilt, and Couch, a devout Christian for whom innocence or guilt is all that matters. Still, whatever distinctive chemistry the actors are able to summon is ultimately flattened by the one-size-fits-all dramatic function they’ve been assigned here: to guide us through an intelligence-gathering legal labyrinth and register their slow-dawning horror at the repellent tactics sanctioned by the U.S. government.
All this might seem relatively quaint in 2021, since the gravest threats to America’s national security now come from within, as evidenced by a recent insurrection and an ongoing impeachment trial that would seem to have exhausted the public’s capacity for outrage. “The Mauritanian,” in other words, joins 2019’s “The Report” in reviving a dormant subgenre of war-on-terror thrillers that, with one brilliant exception (“Zero Dark Thirty”), has produced little more than a series of bland, hopelessly dated exercises in high-minded hand wringing. (Remember “Rendition” or “Lions for Lambs”? Me neither.) Which is not to say that this movie, with its pre-Trumpian echoes and chunky-looking cellphones, doesn’t have a story worth telling; the injustices that have been and continue to be perpetrated at Guantanamo Bay give the lie to that suggestion. But it’s only when the movie returns to Slahi, played by Rahim with an extraordinary mix of cynicism, despair, humor and soul, that you catch a glimpse of what that story could and should have been.
At one point Slahi is described as “the Al Qaeda Forrest Gump,” an easy target for suspicion based on his relationships with other key figures (his cousin was a spiritual adviser to Osama bin Laden). As former Guantanamo chief prosecutor Morris D. Davis (the originator of the “Gump” comparison) noted in a 2013 interview, Slahi’s case was an example of “a lot of smoke and no fire,” a conclusion that took long enough to reach. “The Mauritanian,” for its part, doesn’t exactly give its putative subject the cinematic equivalent of due process. For purposes of suspense and intrigue, it keeps the matter of Slahi’s guilt or innocence temporarily in play, treating his history as a guessing game until his lawyers finally deliver sweet vindication.
Their persistence is certainly worth saluting, as is Rahim’s thorough dismantling of the pernicious Arab and Muslim stereotypes that Hollywood has been selling for decades. But “The Mauritanian” is a moral muddle as well as a narrative one, and it leaves you wondering why our empathy for Slahi has to be so mediated, negotiated and rationalized in the first place. Forrest Gump was at least granted the courtesy of being at the center of his own story.