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Mohamedou Slahi’s autobiographical account of being held at Gitmo in the aftermath of 9/11 is a disturbing tale of revenge disguised as justice.

American Horror Story

Tahar Rahim as The Mauritanian
Tahar Rahim as The Mauritanian

Someone had to pay for the lives lost during the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. However, the challenge was in finding the right “someone,” not just anyone.

In the case of Mohamedou Slahi, it most certainly worked against him that he received a phone call from Osama bin Laden’s satellite phone. That, along with his ties to al Qaeda (as part of a U.S.-supported fight against a communist government ruling Afghanistan back in the ‘90s) and his birthplace and residence, the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, It was a staggering mix of unfortunate associations, geopolitics and clandestine intelligence strategies that landed him in a nightmare encompassing the full gamut of emotional, mental and physical torture behind the walls of a U.S. prison that seems so incongruously located in Cuba, wedged between a mountain range and Guantanamo Bay, feeding out to the Caribbean Sea.

In the corporate world, the term “Special Projects” is oftentimes a euphemism, a term used to describe the busy work of somebody between roles or who otherwise doesn’t have a distinct set of ongoing responsibilities. Sometimes it even carries with it the tarnished reputation of a person who isn’t fully competent in their original role, so to avoid the legal wrangling of a firing, they’re simply put on “Special Projects.” Maybe, the hope is, they’ll get the hint and leave of their own accord.

In Gitmo, though, the term “Special Projects” carried with it something far darker and more menacing. There, it was a euphemism to cover the tracks of masked interrogators, sexual humiliation, beatings, water boarding and an array of other physical stressors. The routine would include 18-hour days of interrogation day after day after day.

Rough Justice

In short, very little good can come from such a toxic cocktail of politics and prison and The Mauritanian manages to walk a fairly balanced line, all things considered. Sure, it’s easy to point fingers at George W. Bush’s administration as the driving force behind the aggressiveness. But, it’s also noted Slahi continued to be held at Gitmo through almost the entirety of the two-term Barak Obama administration.

Slahi was finally released in October 2016. All told, Slahi spent 14 years and two months in cruel detention without ever being charged with a crime. His autobiographical account, Guantanamo Diary, was originally published in 2015, while he was still imprisoned, and the book was heavily redacted with page after page of blacked-out text. His diary has since been restored and published in an uncensored edition.

Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster, Silence of the Lambs), a defense attorney who takes on Slahi’s case, suggests the people held at Gitmo are being hidden and isolated from the world in that strange location not because they’re suspects, but because they’re witnesses.

For her part, Foster once again goes all-in as she recreates Hollander for the big screen; her tinted gray hair offers stark contrast to the ruby red lipstick and fingernail polish. She’s no-nonsense and that cuts both ways; she doesn’t succumb to the traditional path of outrage and courtroom dramatics. Instead, Foster effectively keeps the seething and simmering beneath the surface. It’s there, but it’s contained. Don’t look for an iconic A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth!” moment here; that would only serve to undermine the multi-layered, multi-faceted complications of the real-life situation.

While there’s a lot of paper shuffling as Nancy sifts through one deeply redacted document after another, the drama steers clear of judicial theatrics and instead shifts the focus on flashbacks to Slahi’s nightmarish experiences. To further amplify the situation, director Kevin MacDonald (State of Play) and cinematographer Alwin Kuchler (Hanna) shift the aspect ratio from scope to 1.33:1 during those flashbacks, perhaps as a way to further capture the sense of close confines in those cold, green-walled cells. The film goes grainy as the images onscreen become more and more disturbing.

The Rule of Law

Jodie Foster as Nancy Hollander
Jodie Foster as Nancy Hollander

At the heart of all this is what should be a major breakout performance from Tahar Rahim as Mohamedou Slahi, which stands in stark contrast to his other current release, a Netflix mini-series called The Serpent, in which he plays another real-life person — but one on the far opposite end of the spectrum, the slick manipulator and serial killer Charles Sobhraj, who’s currently serving multiple life sentences in Nepal.

During the end credits, the real-life people behind the story make an appearance. Nancy Hollander is a dead ringer for Jodie Foster; maybe that should be the other way around.

The same can be said of Slahi and Rahim. It’s readily apparent Slahi has a quiet spirit and humor, the kind that are hard to break. Rahim captures that essence of a man who thought he was playing by the rules, only to have his world turned upside-down for more than a decade.

Slahi’s story is supported by all sorts of MFRs (Memorandums for the Record), a fascinating collection of self-incriminating government documents. It’s one of those strange-but-true, couldn’t-happen-here kind of stories that’s hard to believe, but even harder to fathom how — despite the incomprehensible tragedy of 9/11 — standard codes of conduct so quickly fell by the bayside.