Jodie Foster’s new movie The Mauritanian revives an issue you probably haven’t thought much about lately, at least not since January 22, 2009. That was the day President Barack Obama signed an executive order to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay within one year. As with many other issues, Obama found it easier to jawbone about the problem than actually fix it, and the prison remains open to this day.
As a hot topic for the chattering classes, though, Gitmo’s status has indeed been closed down. Once Gitmo ceased to be a partisan cudgel with which to club the George W. Bush administration, the media simply lost interest, just as the Patriot Act, much derided when it carried the Bush brand, suddenly became uncontroversial when Obama decided he liked it.
Nevertheless, Gitmo’s status as a strange carve-out to the American justice system remains worthy of attention, given that habeas corpus rights are denied to foreign nationals held prisoner there. One such foreigner, Mohamedou Ould Salahi, is the title figure in The Mauritanian. (Mauritania is a Muslim country in Northwest Africa). Salahi, a former al-Qaeda member whose cousin was a spiritual adviser to Osama bin Laden, was suspected of being a terrorist recruiter in Germany, but was eventually released from Gitmo without charge. He became a cause célèbre and published a book about his experiences entitled Guantanamo Diary, published to acclaim in 2015. A year later, he was finally released without charge, 14 years after being arrested.
Kevin Macdonald’s film is typical of a somewhat tired and cliché-driven genre, in which there is always a crusading lawyer and an innocent and aggrieved prisoner. Foster plays the former, Nancy Hollander, a New Mexico attorney who is at first presented as hard-nosed and unsentimental, focused solely on a narrow procedural issue of forcing prosecutors to provide the evidence against the prisoner. It turns out, though, that Hollander is simply one of those left-wing lawyers who reflexively opposes the government in one case or another, even taking on the case of Bradley Manning, who is incorrectly described as a “whistleblower” in the film. Late in the movie, Hollander’s associate, Teri (Shailene Woodley), reveals that she has qualms about representing Salahi if he is in fact guilty, but Hollander replies that she doesn’t care if the client is guilty or not. That’s perfectly valid; the world needs William Kunstlers, too (“A Terrorist Lawyer, and Proud of It,” ran the title of an op-ed Hollander wrote for the New York Times). But the movie is a bit slippery about the character’s motivations, and Foster (who suddenly looks a lot like Hillary Clinton) is so wary of seeming like yet another radical activist lawyer that she plays the character too blandly.
Where The Mauritanian parts company with most films in its genre is in its prosecutor: A Marine colonel named Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) is disturbed by what he learns about abusive interrogation techniques (there is a harrowing sequence depicting what happened to Salahi in the process of extracting a confession) and eventually walks away from the case out of conscience. Yet his character, too, is poorly defined; in a scene that feels as if it came in from another movie, he meets with opposing counsel (at the Guantanamo gift shop, a colorful detail) to brag about how he is going to beat Hollander because “you haven’t seen what I have.” This scene comes a couple of minutes after one in which he laments that he has no evidence whatsoever.
Though the moral implications and effectiveness of abusive interrogations are important matters, the film doesn’t bring anything new to the subject. Nor does it make any effort whatsoever to capture the mood of extreme alarm in the U.S. in the years immediately after 9/11. Moreover, Salahi did have many shady connections to known terrorists, though much information about him remains under lock and key. If he was the victim of an injustice, it was a bipartisan one, a nontrivial matter that the film doesn’t get around to until an epilogue mentions it in passing. Until that point, the script is peppered with disgusted references to Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld, as though these three men schemed to bring about a gross miscarriage of justice. Yet even after Salahi won a habeas appeal in 2009, the Obama administration (which was eagerly letting many other prisoners out of Guantanamo) insisted on keeping the case alive and prevented him from being freed for seven more years. Why did both the Bush and Obama administrations consider this man so dangerous? We don’t know. It’s all classified. But there’s certainly more to the story than the simplistic picture presented in The Mauritanian.