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How the mighty
Imagine having some shady friends who may or may not be involved in a world-changing event that plunges the biggest world power into a global war with a noun. How would that power treat you? Camus tours the Gitmo gift shop (it’s for real) of THE MAURITANIAN
  'Macdonald was convinced to make the film after Skyping with Salahi, whom he found remarkably optimistic, resilient, and funny, regaling the filmmaker with stories about how he learned English mostly by watching The Big Lebowski repeatedly. “He knows every word by heart,” Macdonald said.'
  Director Kevin Macdonald, Vanity Fair, December 2020*


To avoid the political context, please skip to paragraph five and yes, it surprised me how much I felt about the issues this film raises. Post Trump, people are less surprised by egregious goings-on than they should be but Guantanamo Bay was and is the horrific symbol of how close the US is to shedding its lofty ideals out of what I can only imagine is fear…

First of all, let me admit a personal bias that would have coloured the viewing of this film in a truly surreal way had I known about it pre-screening. Many thanks to STX Entertainment for a screener ahead of a director/editor interview a few weeks ago. Had I known that The Mauritanian himself, Mohamedou Ould Salahi, had learned English from the Dude, Walter, Donny and company in the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece, there would be no way I could prosecute him. I would be incapable of seeing him in any light other than being unfortunate enough to know the wrong people (unlike the Dude, Salahi was a man at the wrong time and place) and on top of that, I’d have a desperate urge to join him at the lanes for a White Russian and a few strikes and spares. It used to be the smokers at the front of the office buildings that could initiate an outsiders’ club and enrol you after your first exhale. Religion is not really cutting it these days followers-wise and the heady days of Macintosh evangelists have passed in to folklore once Apple accepted the corporate mantle of its billion dollar company status, its once rag-tag piratical pioneers now just part of a rather glorious history. But if Bin Laden himself suddenly talked about how someone had peed on his rug (and rugs are taken much more seriously if you are a praying soul) I’d find it hard not to be sympathetic and ask him if it tied the room together. Lebowski fans abide. If none of this makes any sense to you, please watch The Big Lebowski… six or seven times.

Tahar Rahim as Mohamedou Ould Salahi

To be serious for a moment, The Mauritanian is the harrowing true story of a political prisoner with a voice, a pen and extraordinary resilience, a prisoner of one of the most reviled detainment camps under US control but situated in Cuba where the US’s own rule of law is flouted with impunity. In the 70s, airplane hijackers used to order the pilot to “Take me to Cuba!” Now, not so much the preferred destination for terrorists with self-preservation on their minds. Once the slumbering giant that used to be the ‘united’ United States pre-Trump was repeatedly attacked on 9/11, payback was inevitable. Fifteen of the nineteen men were of Saudi Arabian descent. Suddenly America reminded me of the competitors in Monty Python’s 27th Silly Olympiad, specifically the 100 Yards for People with No Sense of Direction. Aside from being one of the funniest sketches I’ve ever seen, America came to mind because what did the US do after 9/11? Attack Iraq. Uh, OK. I take it that there were too many business interests in Saudi to unleash the dogs of war. But there had to be somewhere to keep all those suspected of being linked directly or indirectly to terrorism without the damn Constitution getting in the way. Relocating to Cuba south of the Florida coast solved that little snag and the dreaded ‘Gitmo’ went on to earn its dark reputation for torturing prisoners for years. President Bush and his Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, thought that Guantanamo Bay was a necessary evil to fight terror and a place that managed to quietly amass more than 700 prisoners illegally detained. This fragrant breach of the law borne of fear really damaged the US. People concerned about such a contravention believed the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave had just defecated an inch away from its own back door. How could America not practise what it preached? The answer to that seems plain. 9/11 scared the bejesus out of both the people and the government and something had to be done, whatever the cost. When Louis in Casablanca says to Rick during a routine raid “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” He is then handed a pile of cash. “Your winnings, Sir,” says a croupier. Louis replies with barely a pause “Oh, thank you very much!” Louis is, of course, the US that must maintain the illusion of espousing – if not living up to – staunchly ethical behaviour. But then Guantanamo Bay was not exactly a secret. But someone had to pay and conventional warfare was off the table. Americans had an enemy it simply could not fight or defeat on the battlefield. Asymmetric warfare had entered the mainstream. The ant could suddenly scare and hurt the boot, to a degree way, way beyond its meagre resources.

This blithe jettisoning of core American values had one hell of a cost, a cost that would be physically endured by both guilty and innocent prisoners. It was a price rich and powerful men would happily pay. It wasn’t as if they came within a thousand miles of getting any blood on their own hands. But those who suffered, suffered immeasurably. It shocked me that some men can be tortured over and over for years and still come out the other side with their sanity (and humour) intact. Mohamedou Ould Salahi was such a man. He owned a phone with some truly dodgy entries that he quickly deleted. He was a self-confessed operative of Al Qaeda and had a passing, brief relationship with some seriously determined men heavily involved in the 9/11 attacks. He is whisked away and without his family and friends having a clue where he was taken, he ends up at Gitmo, the place where compliance is extracted via excruciating pain and any forced confessions offered as truth, a useless and fabricated ‘truth’ that can be rendered inadmissible in law. The phrase ‘intelligence gathering’ sounds so much like harvest time at the local Sunday School. After this film, it should fill you with revulsion.

Jodie Foster as Nancy Hollander in The Mauritanian

Enter Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch as defence attorney Nancy Hollander and Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch respectively. Foster is there to re-establish the rule of law (guilty or not guilty, every one in the US has a right to a trial where evidence of their guilt or innocence is established) and so takes on the defence of a client she knows will invite intense negative blowback towards her. But to all who cared about the law, Gitmo was a stain on US democracy and President Obama made its closing down part of his mission. He was frustrated by bipartisan infighting but made a small difference if only by bringing the numbers down significantly. But then where did the guilty go and who were they? This is the thorniest of problems. Cumberbatch (with the lower register of his extraordinary voice seemingly enhanced here and sporting a faultless US accent) had a friend on a 9/11 plane so has a personal desire to put Salahi on death row. He has all the governmental will behind him. Foster, as an independent, is more adrift. Both come across hurdles and barriers that start to erode their respective grips on the case. But the film rests or falls on the shoulders of Tahar Rahim, playing the prisoner Salahi. So I’m thrilled to report that his performance is mesmerising. He really invests the part with a heady mixture of ambivalence, charisma and vulnerability. Did he? Didn’t he? As an audience, you may vacillate on this key issue as the film progresses. His innocence or guilt becomes less important than the horrific process he goes through. I think the filmmakers were making the point that a formidable giant need not compromise itself or its values to seek justice. Despite the fear of these foreign nationals and what terrorist networks are able to accomplish, the law encompasses terrorism just as well as any other crime. Put interrogation into the hands of the military, neutered for so long having no discernable enemy to engage with on their own old fashioned terms, and good people’s souls erode. It’s a testament to the effectiveness of the prolonged brutality that when the prisoner does call a guard by his Christian name, your spirits lift with hope with the small but telling humanity of the gesture.

Director Macdonald has no snappy twist ending or sequences full of VFX explosions and carnage with which to present his narrative. He has real human beings caught up in some awful situations and good people posing and trying to answer the most difficult of questions. What he does have in his arsenal is the truth of the story itself, a fine cast and a moral conundrum and if nothing else, it is a great story told and acted well and deserves your time and thoughts.


The Mauritanian is released in the UK on Thursday 1 April on Digital platforms.


The Mauritanian poster
The Mauritanian

UK | USA 2021
129 mins
directed by
Kevin Macdonald
produced by
Lloyd Levin
Benedict Cumberbatch
Adam Ackland
Michael Bronner
Mark Holder
Christine Holder
Leah Clarke
Branwen Prestwood Smith
Beatriz Levin
written by
Michael Bronner (as M.B. Traven)
Rory Haines
Sohrab Noshirvani
based onthe book Guantánamo Diary by
Mohamedou Ould Slahi
Alwin H. Küchler
Justine Wright
Tom Hodge
production design
Michael Carlin
Jodie Foster
Tahar Rahim
Zachary Levi
Saamer Usmani
Shailene Woodley
Benedict Cumberbatch

UK distributor
STX International
release date
1 April 2021
review posted
29 March 2021

See all of Camus' reviews