Nancy Hollander is a good lawyer who’s given, if anything, too much of herself to her work. She tirelessly jousts with opposing attorneys, courts and with governments on behalf of her clients. And her many long-fought victories have made her an important member of her firm and, well, maybe contributed to the fact that she’s separated from her husband.
So, when another lawyer asks her to look into the case of some Al-Qaeda member being held by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay, she isn’t really interested in spending any of her precious time on that. She’s paid her dues. But … she decides to call the State Department anyway. And she finds out that the government has been playing pretty fast and loose with this man named Mohamedou Ould Salahi.
Due simply to what looked like a chance encounter with a known 9/11 terrorist and a phone call from Bin Laden’s phone, Salahi was accused of being the man who recruited the terrorists that took down the World Trade Center. But there’s no real evidence of that being true. And for that matter, the government has held him without filing criminal charges … for five years!
All of that suddenly raises Nancy’s hackles. She’s arm-wrestled with the government before. And she has absolutely no fear of jumping into the ring again, especially with an administration that’s pulling obviously illegal grab-and-hold tactics that even the Supreme Court has ruled against.
Ok, sure, it’ll look like Nancy’s defending someone who might have blood on his hands from the brutal 9/11 terrorist attacks. But she’s not just defending him. She’s defending the rule of law!
Throughout the process of preparing for a forthcoming court case, Nancy and the lead prosecutor, Lt. Col. Stuart Couch both search for evidence and collaboration to support their cases. And both are honorable and upright in their pursuit of justice. In fact, Stuart Couch is upright enough that he backs away from leading the prosecution when he discovers that Salahi’s human rights have been violated.
[Spoiler Warning] Ultimately Salahi is found innocent by the U.S. court system, prompting his release. (That freedom only comes after serving a 14 year stretch of incarceration, however.) During the credits we see footage of the real Mohamedou Ould Salahi singing and earnestly celebrating his freedom.
Lt. Col. Couch is a Christian. We see him in church services twice. In one service, the pastor talks of repenting from sin and treating everyone with human dignity. And that motivates Stuart to back away from his job as part of the Guantanamo prosecuting team. “I refuse to prosecute this case as a Christian, as a lawyer,” he tells his superior officer. On the other side of the equation, one person makes it clear that God would be on Stuart’s side as the U.S. prosecutor.
When first meeting Salahi, Nancy and her assistant, Teri, greet him with the Muslim phrase, “As-Salaam-Alaikum.” We also see a variety of people of the Islamic faith praying on prayer rugs in various interrogation areas and as part of a Muslim wedding. In fact, an entire cell block of Muslims verbally prays together at one point. When Salahi is given a scholarship as a teen to a school in Germany, his mother proclaims, “Praise be to God.” We also see her holding rosary holy beads.
While at Guantanamo, Salahi prays repeatedly and appears to be devout. But over time, his faith wanes, and he refuses to pray. He even sarcastically asks if Nancy wants him to sue God at one point. Eventually, however, he states, “I want to forgive, for that is what Allah, my god, wants.” “May god forgive us, and may god be with us,” he declares later.
During a flashback memory of being tortured by Military Intelligence officers, a female officer (wearing a mask and sports bra) straddles Salahi and crudely goads him about having sex with her.
Early on we hear that Nancy and her husband are separated.
We’re told several quick stories of terrorists killing people on a 9/11 plane flight, including Stuart’s friend whose throat was slit.
We see Salahi wearing hand- and ankle cuffs that have sliced bloody gouges into his wrists and ankles. We’re told that the Bush administration gave a green light to use whatever torture was necessary to squeeze information out of Salahi. And through a lengthy series of scenes we see him left wet and freezing while chained and forced to stand in a extremely cold cell.
Salahi is also viciously and repeatedly beaten, waterboarded, taken out in a boat and nearly drowned, and constantly tormented in physical and psychological ways by guards dressed in masks. One interrogator also tells him that his mother has been officially approved to be picked up, brought to Guantanamo and raped. In his forced delusion, Salahi sees a masked and chained guard as his mother.
Salahi is kept awake and tortured for a reported 70 days until he tells interrogators whatever they want to hear and signs confessions for things he didn’t do. By the end of the process, he’s bloodied and covered head-to-toe in bruises. We hear that a fellow prisoner whom Salahi has befriended killed himself.
More than 25 f-words and 10 s-words are joined by a handful of uses of “h—” and several uses of “b–ch” and “a–hole.” God’s name is misused in combination with “d–n” once.
We see Stuart drink beer with friends on several occasions in a bar and during a football game (once with Nancy).
A police officer and an interrogator at Guantanamo both smoke cigarettes.
The U.S. government is said to have broken numerous laws in relation to Guantanamo’s illegal incarceration of prisoners. (Though the government’s position is never explored here.) We’re also told that the government authorized “special measures” for Salahi, suggesting that they wanted the Military Intelligence officers to torture him.
Salahi is also stripped, searched (including, it’s implied, his anal cavity) and sprayed down with a hose when he gets to the Guantanamo. (We see him from the waist up.)
When Stuart backs away from the prosecution team, fellow soldiers call him a traitor. Salahi, we learn, left his pregnant wife to go join an Al-Qaeda group. And it’s implied that the U.S. government covered up numerous deaths of prisoners at the Guantanamo detention camp.
The Mauritanian is based on a book called the Guantanamo Diary, published in 2015, which became a worldwide bestseller. It lays out the struggles of a former Al-Qaeda member named Mohamedou Ould Salahi, who was picked up just after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and held prisoner for 14 years at Guantanamo Bay without ever being charged with a crime.
The Mauritanian is a dramatic story of U.S. governmental overreach, a tale of abuse and injustice. But while the top-shelf cast works hard, striving to give life to their characters, the end result is a fairly lifeless film. The script here is dull and profane. And some viewers may well feel like it’s a politically biased script, too, one designed to spark protest and outrage.
A flashback re-enactment of Salahi’s brutal torment at the hands of US Military Intelligence officers, for example, is extended, torturous and wincingly cruel. It’s obviously intended to give some emotional heft to an otherwise thin and plodding drama.
But when the credits roll and we see footage of the real Mohamedou Ould Salahi after his eventual release, we get a glimpse of a story and a film that could have been: something personal, emotional and easy to identify with.
That, however, is not this film.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.