BAXTER — “The Mauritanian” defies expectations — both as an unflinching look back on our not-so-distant past and as to the depths the U.S. government would stoop in pursuit of “justice.”

Directed by Kevin Macdonald and based on The New York Times bestselling memoir “Guantánamo Diary” by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, the new movie released last month in theaters like the Lakes 12 Theatre in Baxter takes a look back at the jingoistic times around 9/11.

The front page of the Orlando Sentinel newspaper captures the horror many Americans felt during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Photo by Aidan Bartos on Unsplash.com
The front page of the Orlando Sentinel newspaper captures the horror many Americans felt during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Photo by Aidan Bartos on Unsplash.com

The cringe-worthy inhumane treatment of Slahi by the U.S. government at the prison contrasts sharply with the idyllic and scenic island country about 300 miles from Miami, Florida.

Oscar-winner Jodie Foster plays Nancy Hollander, an attorney who takes on Slahi’s case. The Muslim is believed to be the head recruiter for Osama bin Laden by U.S. intelligence agencies.

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Academy Award-nominee Benedict Cumberbatch plays Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch, the military prosecutor tasked with proving Slahi’s involvement with the 9/11 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.

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And at the center of it all is French-Algerian actor Tahar Rahim as Slahi, who as a young man received a scholarship to study in Germany where he earned an electrical engineering degree.

Slahi comes from Mauritania, a country in Northwest Africa, and it is there on a return trip home he is interrogated repeatedly by that country’s officials and the FBI before he’s taken by the CIA.

Couch has a personal stake in the prosecution of Slahi. Couch’s friend, a pilot, was killed when one of the planes hijacked by the Wahhabi terrorist group Al-Qaeda was flown into the south tower of the World Trade Center complex in Lower Manhattan resulting in thousands of deaths.

The World Trade Center and St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church were among those destroyed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City in 2001. Photo by Steve Harvey on Unsplash.com
The World Trade Center and St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church were among those destroyed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City in 2001. Photo by Steve Harvey on Unsplash.com

Couch is seeking the death penalty if it can be proven that Slahi had involvement with the 9/11 terrorist attacks that led to the deadliest terrorist attack in human history.

U.S. intelligence heard Slahi talking to cousin Mahfouz Ould al-Walid on a satellite phone in 1998 traced to bin Laden. Ould al-Walid was a spiritual advisor to bin Laden before 9/11.

RELATED: Now showing at Lakes 12 Theatre

The stakes in the R-rated legal drama from STX films are intrinsically high for if Couch cannot prove the government’s case in court, Slahi will likely be released with the country watching.

Hollander, Slahi’s attorney, along with her associate Teri Duncan, played by Golden Globe-nominee Shailene Woodley, visits him repeatedly at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp where he has been languishing without charge or trial.

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Hollander and Duncan must first, however, convince Slahi to trust them as his attorneys, but after years of mistreatment and “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a euphemism for the program of systematic torture of detainee, Slahi is wary of trusting anyone and is losing hope.

“The U.S. government is holding upwards of 700 prisoners at Guantánamo. Since when did we start locking people up without a trial in this country,” Hollander asks.

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“All my time here, I have been told you are guilty — not for something that I have done but because of suspicions and associations. I am innocent.”

— Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Muslim from Mauritania


Slahi says, “All my time here, I have been told you are guilty — not for something that I have done but because of suspicions and associations. I am innocent.”

Macdonald directs the two-hour feature film adaptation with an assured hand and eye. The Oscar winner does not shy away from the harsh subject matter that can be hard to watch, such as the waterboarding, beating and sexual assault of Slahi and others at Guantánamo Bay.

When Slahi’s memoir was first published in 2015, it was heavily redacted by the U.S. government and he was still imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay — a sort of living testament to a miscarriage of justice, a rush to judgment and the indomitable human spirit.

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Rahim and Foster were nominated for Best Actor-Motion Picture Drama and Best Supporting Actress-Motion Picture, respectively, at last month’s 78th Golden Globe Awards with Foster winning.

“The Mauritanian” also holds a rather impressive 72% approval rating among critics and 85% approval rating among audiences at Rotten Tomatoes, a review-aggregation website for film and television.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bdfilmforum.