The Hero’s Journey in “The Mauritanian”

Mohamedou Ould Salahi spent 14 years at Guantanamo Bay despite never being charged with a crime. Picked up shortly after 9/11, he was accused of being one of the key recruiters for the attacks despite almost no evidence that he was directly related. One of the hijackers spent a night on Salahi’s couch, and in the international pursuit of justice, Salahi became another victim. He detailed his imprisonment and torture in a book called Guantanamo Diary, published in 2015, which became a bestseller around the world. A movie was inevitable and now Kevin Macdonald’s version of Salahi’s story, “The Mauritanian,” is here. It is an old-fashioned drama through and through, with some impressive acting from Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, and Benedict Cumberbatch.

When Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) arrives at Guantánamo Bay, she’s wearing sunglasses. Her chic white bob and blue button-down shirt are hardly provocative, but a guard advises her to wear a hijab anyway – the detainees have been known to spit at women. The moment recalls Foster’s trainee FBI agent Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, met with a different bodily fluid in the bowels of a psychiatric hospital.

The Mauritanian, a post-9/11 legal drama based on Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s 2015 memoir Guantánamo Diary, is less concerned with the particular psychology of its incarcerated protagonist than with the political machinery that kept him behind bars without an official criminal charge for 14 years.

The excellent Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) brings softness and seriousness to Slahi, but overripe flashbacks to his horrific torture are shot with a cartoonish edge. It’s a double bind: depict an interrogation scene too realistically and run the risk of torture porn, but veer too off-kilter and the effect is distancing. Here, the styling is at odds with the otherwise straightforward courtroom narrative. The prestige procedural elements work better; the real-life story is enraging, and it’s fun to see Benedict Cumberbatch’s morally conflicted military prosecutor lock horns with Foster’s icy human rights lawyer.

“The Mauritanian” opens in November 2001 with the arrest of Salahi (Rahim) but then jumps to 2005, when Nancy Hollander (Foster) agrees to force the government to charge the man with something. As most people know by now, Guantanamo Bay was an essentially lawless place, where people could be held without charges for years, tortured into confessing to something that may not have ever happened. The federal courts have ruled dozens of times that people were held there unlawfully, and the case of Salahi is one of the most high-profile and disturbing. Because of a chance encounter and a phone call from Bin Laden’s phone, Salahi was accused of being the man who recruited people to fly planes into the World Trade Center. With almost no evidence and no charges, they held him for years and Hollander’s cause starts with a simple habeas corpus case, wherein the government would have to charge Salahi or let him go. She recruits an associate named Teri (Shailene Woodley) to assist with the case and begins uncovering more and more dark truths about Guantanamo. On the other side, Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Cumberbatch) seeks to defend the government’s case but discovers the depth of his own country’s crimes.

In the final scenes of “The Mauritanian,” as in so many true stories, we see footage of the real Salahi, and it becomes clearer than ever that what preceded this wasn’t really his story. Yes, one should only judge the film that’s in front of them, but it’s fair to be critical of a work that doesn’t know what story to tell. Rahim does so much to make us empathize with Salahi, but seeing the real man smiling and singing reminds one how much the film pushes other narratives into what should have been a deeply human, relatable story instead of another straightforward accounting of a dark chapter in the history of the world. As Macdonald’s film ventures further into its revelations about torture and injustice, Salahi himself gets lost in the storytelling, tragically becoming another face in the crowd of abused prisoners.