“The Mauritanian,” now in theaters and on demand in March, is the latest in a line of post-9/11 procedural shamings, films that righteously (and rightfully) dramatize the sins of which the US government was guilty in the years following the attacks on the World Trade Center. And when I say years, I mean years: The movie tells the story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, a Mauritanian citizen who was detained at Guantánamo Bay for 14 years without being charged for a crime. He spent at least 70 days of that time undergoing torture, during which he signed a confession that was deemed useless in court.
Salahi wrote a book in prison — “Guantánamo Diary,” a 2015 bestseller — and now here’s the movie version, starring a silver-haired Jodie Foster as Nancy Hollander, the lawyer who took his case; Benedict Cumberbatch with a honeyed Southern accent as Marine Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Couch, the military prosecutor tasked with finding him guilty; and the charismatic French-Algerian actor Tahar Rahim (star of the 2009 prison epic “A Prophet”) as Salahi. As directed by Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”), it’s a steady, compelling accounting of events that intends to leave you infuriated and succeeds.
In the eyes of American intelligence, Salahi was suspect because he had fought with the US-backed mujaheddin against Afghanistan communists and then trained briefly with Al Qaeda before cutting ties with the group. He had a cousin who remained and from whom he had received a phone call shortly before 9/11. Salahi had also studied engineering in Germany, leading officials to label him a recruiter for Osama bin Laden. He was taken from a family wedding and transferred to Gitmo in August 2002.
“The Mauritanian” introduces us to him after the worst has happened and then leads us back, along with his lawyer and the prosecutor, through a narrowing tunnel of horrors. Macdonald and his screenwriters use a novel parallel structure in which Hollander (along with an associate played by Shailene Woodley) and Couch each pursue evidence to bolster their respective cases. They’re each stymied, too; she by boxes of redacted documents, Magic-Markered into uselessness, and he by the refusal of the CIA and Guantánamo brass to let him see the classified MFRs — Memorandum for Reports — in which Salahi’s treatment is detailed. The film’s climax comes as a double revelation, intercut with a brutal, stylized re-creation of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used on Salahi.
The subject is the bureaucracy of cruelty, and like the 2019 film “The Report,” which starred Adam Driver as a Senate staffer investigating the CIA interrogation program, “The Mauritanian” spends a lot of time in windowless cinder block rooms, relying on the savvy of good actors — and both Foster and Cumberbatch are very good — to pull us along. But it’s also a prison movie, and Rahim is sympathetic as Salahi, an upbeat personality ground down by a Kafka-esque system. That it’s our system, one that the government enabled and many Americans sanctioned, is a point on which “The Mauritanian” treads lightly. Aside from one rueful torturer (Zachary Levi) and one hidebound senior officer (Corey Johnson), the crimes visited on Salahi are carried out by faceless, nameless entities, and the invocation of two names at the top of the food chain — Rumsfeld and Bush — isn’t enough to let everyone else off the hook.
In footage running under the end credits, the real Mohamedou Salahi is revealed as a smiling, gregarious man, and one of the film’s unstated morals is that his forgiveness is a form of healing for us all — that we’re in a better place now. I’m not so sure. As a closing credit reminds us, 40 prisoners remain in Guantánamo Bay, and of the nearly 800 people held there, only five were successfully convicted of any crime at all.
Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Written by M.B. Traven and Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani, based on the book “Guantanamo Diary” by Mohamedou Ould Slahi. Starring Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim, Benedict Cumberbatch, Shailene Woodley. At Boston Common and suburbs. In English and Arabic, with subtitles. 129 minutes. R (scenes of state torture, violence including a sexual assault, language).