Cast: Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tahar Rahim, Shailene Woodey
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Rating: * * * and a half
Rotting in Indian jails for anything between 20 to 40 years - a decade long incarceration is routine - desi undertrials might well wonder what the fuss is all about in The Mauritanian,
Award-winning documentarian Kevin Macdonald's adaptation of Guantánamo Diary, Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s best-selling memoir of his 14 years as a Guantánamo Bay detention camp prisoner.
Accused of being a recruiter for the 9/11 terror attacks on the basis of a meeting with a known 9/11 terrorist and a call from Bin Laden’s satellite phone, Slahi maintained his innocence but subsequently confessed under duress. Intriguingly, the US authorities did not press formal charges!
Macdonald and screenwriters M.B. Traven, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani throw a spotlight on the morality and ethics of an unjust incarceration and the legal struggle to free Slahi (played by Tahar Rahim of The Prophet and The Serpent fame). Interestingly, the screenplay repeatedly showcases U.S. governmental wrongs while glossing over Slahi's Al Qaeda connections.
His lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and her assistant Teri (Shailene Woodey) believe the government must be held accountable for the illegal detention of Slahi at Gitmo where he was, as per his memoirs, tortured and humiliated by masked female officers.
Government prosecutor Col. Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a friend of the murdered American co-pilot of the second plane which hit the World Trade Center (his throat was slit by the terrorists onboard).
Eventually, Couch refuses to prosecute on the ground that "Slahi's incriminating statements had been taken through torture, rendering them inadmissible under U.S. and international law." Significantly, he arrives at this conclusion during a priest's sermon at a baptism ceremony. In a 2009 lecture at the University of Virginia, Couch referred to the priestly homily that inspired his moment of awakening as “a thunderclap upside the head.”
Judge James Robertson who ordered Slahi to be released, wrote: "... associations alone are not, of course, sufficient to make detention lawful."
As is well known, the rule of law is blithely disregarded closer home, not to speak of the likes of ISIS which revels in abduction, sex slavery, torture, brutal murders, extortion and systemized dadagiri.
The possibility of Slahi's complicity seems non-essential to Hollander whom Foster plays with characteristic aplomb. Cumberbatch, adopting a Southern drawl for the role, radiates righteousness and virtue. When he declines "as a Christian, to prosecute Slahi", his colleagues call him "a traitor" bringing to mind home grown patriots who routinely accuse dissidents of sedition.
The screenplay's series of harrowing flashbacks punctuate the legal niceties to depict Slahi’s psychological and physical torture, stirring pity and compassion in viewers. When the end credits roll, we see footage of the real Slahi after his release. Smiling and exuding joy, Slahi sings along to Bob Dylan’s The Man in Me. Such meaningful and apt lyrics! We are happy an impressive cast and a bold, if slightly biased, script redeems this tale of unrighteousness and injustice.
Reviewed by Ronita Torcato