We, as a nation, would choose to believe that we are, for lack of a better term, the chosen people. It is a notion that exists in much of our pomp and circumstance, much of the way we talk about ourselves. This lofty ideal makes many believe that we occupy a moral high ground, one from which we view the rest of the world.
The thing about a moral high ground, however, the thing we often forget or ignore, is that if we want to see ourselves as better, we have to do better. It isn’t enough just to spout off about how great we are, it is something that must be proven and proven repeatedly, because one slip, just one, completely cedes that which we would claim.
An incredibly uncomfortable corollary to this—the one which we are deemed “unpatriotic” or “unamerican” for daring to mention—is that all too often we have not just given up on doing the right thing, we have done the wrong one. We haven’t simply gotten into the muck with the dregs of humanity, we have created the muck ourselves.
The new film, “The Mauritanian,” which is based on the non-fiction book “Guantanamo Diary” by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, tells of one such moment in our nation’s (very recent) past – the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba following the September 11th terrorist attacks. Directed by Kevin Macdonald, the film takes a three-pronged approach to the story, giving us the tale of the prosecutor, Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch); the defense lawyers, Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley); and Slahi (Tahar Rahim) himself. Through them all we get a more clear picture of what happened, and a more clear picture at just where we, as a nation, went wrong.
Slahi was taken into custody in late 2001 in Mauritania and eventually found himself in Guantanamo, where he was tortured. At some point during that torture—under duress—he confessed to various crimes. The film gives us all of this quite slowly, meting it out over the course of two hours. That said, we all know where the tale is headed; we know what it means to have been in Guantanamo at that time; we know what Hollander and Duncan’s efforts are going to uncover.
As the film flashes back and forth in time, we see Slahi’s youth and his ending up in Germany for school and the various stages of his incarceration. This is all building towards that moment we know is to come, and the build is increasingly heartbreaking.
Rahim is exceptionally good at taking us through Slahi’s progression. Early on in the film, we see a man who has learned to trust no one and can’t be sure what to make of his lawyers. We know that we’re going to get to see where that distrust comes from; we’re going to see it validated.
On the other side of the legal affair is one of the most interesting characters the movie has to offer (though still second to Slahi), Lt. Colonel Couch. Couch had a friend who was the co-pilot on one of the hijacked planes on 9/11 and would love to make those responsible pay. But, as we see, he is that ideal we spoke of above, he is the man who believes in and will not cede the moral high ground – he wants to our nation, a nation of laws, to operate by those laws. Couch’s story arc is about him fighting for the truth in parallel with Hollander; not to help her, but to be able to prosecute his case.
That brings us to the greatest weakness that we see in the film – the relationship of Hollander and Duncan. The latter is the former’s underling and offered as a relative neophyte. At one point, Duncan is dismayed by Slahi’s confession (unaware of its torture origination) and upset that she has sacrificed relationships to defend this man. Family members don’t want to see her because she’s working as a defense lawyer for someone they see as a terrorist.
This is a crucial idea – Duncan’s family happily cedes the moral high ground (it having been clear in the moment that bringing prisoners to Guantanamo Bay was not just unamerican but completely and totally immoral) and so she finds herself caught in the middle. “The Mauritanian” opts to not play this out. Instead, it completely avoids it. There is no reckoning, and even if the meat of the tale is in what happened to Slahi, the movie chooses to open this particular issue in regards to Duncan and is consequently obligated to see it through. Not doing so is to let all of us off the hook.
By and large, however, this is a completely captivating (and sickening) film. It is not a movie about the evils that men do, but rather the evils that this nation, our nation, a nation which prides itself on its alleged superiority very much actually did. It is a powerful movie but doesn’t fully come to grips with what it all means, and that’s a disappointment. If we are to improve, if we are to become a city upon a hill, we need to know where we’ve fallen so we can know how to not fall again. Reckonings must take place. No one can or should be let off the hook simply because some time has passed. As “The Mauritanian” makes clear, lives were destroyed by these events and a couple of weeks or months or years isn’t going to fix them. That’s something we all need to face.
photo credit: STX Films