How could a man spend 14 years imprisoned and tortured by the United States without ever being formally charged with a crime? Jodie Foster and Shailene Woodley star as the lawyers trying to free Mohamedou Ould Slahi in this graphic legal drama based on his memoir, “Guantanamo Diary.”
Even though there are heinous, harrowing scenes of the torture he endured inside the Cuban house of horrors, some of the tensest moments take place in front of a judge, much like the other current high profile courtroom hit, Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7. While Sorkin’s film is getting awards season buzz, Tahar Rahim’s intense, intelligent, magnificently human performance as Slahi also deserves an audience.
The shell of the story, written by Rory Haines, Sohrab Noshirvani and M.B. Traven, begins shortly after the 9/11 attacks when U.S. agents kidnap and imprison Slahi at a family wedding, suspecting he recruited the terrorists responsible for taking down the World Trade Center and crashing into the Pentagon.
Investigators were sure they had a big fish, even calling him the “Al Qaeda Forest Gump.” The only hint the writers give that Slahi had something to hide was that he wiped the contacts off his phone when he was about to be apprehended. In the aftermath of 9/11 that was enough to make him suspicious enough for a one way ticket to Guantanamo Bay.
Director Kevin MacDonald, well known for documentaries (Life in a Day 2020, Marley), employs that same authentic style as another set of eyes in the room almost dispassionately watching Slahi’s Guantanamo Inquisition unfold. It’s hard not to recoil at the psychological and physical torture dealt out in the name of national freedom and security.
MacDonald and cinematographer Alwin Küchler decide to constrain the aspect ratio during the flashbacks of Slahi’s suffering with grainy, herky-jerky shots of Slahi’s waterboarding, sleep deprivation and sexual humiliation intimating all that the prisoner had to endure before finally breaking and confessing. These “confessions” have been routinely shown to be worthless. You’ll squirm as if you’re being put in the box alongside Slahi.
After four years of at Guantanamo with no legal help, the Government wanted to instigate legal proceedings and ultimately execute him. High-powered Albuquerque attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) decides to defend Salahi pro bono and enlists young lawyer Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) to assist her. Woodley is given little to do other than leaf through paper and look worried. Foster plays her role almost without emotion, concentrating on the defense and the law until the Government’s case begins to unravel and she learns what was really happening behind the barbed wire. Her emerging fondness for Slahi is a slow reveal and one that will make you uncomfortable, once what he was really going through is revealed.
On the other side, prosecuting the case is seasoned military litigator Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is convinced he’s got a slam dunk win. He has a vested interest since his best friend was a co-pilot on Flight 175 on 9/11. But suspicions arise when he tries to prove his case and is only supplied Government documents full of redactions. Cumberbatch plays a principled conservative who stands for the rule of law which seems refreshing these days.
MacDonald does bring a bit of light humor into Slahi’s bleak existence. His only link to the outside world is the audio he overhears from the guards’ TV as they watch the E! channel non-stop, thus giving Salahi lots of news about Charlie Sheen which is a true fact from his diary.
As both lawyers continue digging for the truth they find the trail of reprehensible human rights violations leads higher up the food chain all the way to officials like Donald Rumsfeld.
Rahim gives a committed performance portraying Slahi as a gentle and kind soul who just wants to find a way to smile and go home. This story challenges the notion that the U.S. is always the “good guy.” Rahim is no Yankee Doodle Dandy. He is a French actor who happens to have been born on the 4th of July. Previously, he starred in another film where he played an Arab man imprisoned in France, The Prophet.
The Mauritanian spreads blame for Guantanamo’s continued existence on both Republican and Democrat administrations. After his 14 years in American custody, the closing title cards and footage of the real Slahi show revelations that have more impact than the previous 2 hours. This is a movie that comes close to pandering to an agenda, but is ultimately saved by Tahar Rahim’s inspirational portrayal making it a watchable version of unvarnished history.
Jodie Foster delivers the line that applies to so much of what we’re living through in America right now, “The Constitution doesn’t have an asterisk that says terms and conditions apply.” it’s easy to forget the gross human rights violations perpetrated in the name of the U.S. Government in the War on Terror. Seeing this film will make you remember.
STX Entertainment 2 Hours 9 Minutes R
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