… We think of justice as a quality that may exist in a whole community as well as in an individual, and the community is the bigger of the two. Possibly, then, we may find justice there in larger proportions, easier to make out. So I suggest that we should begin by inquiring what justice means in a state. Then we can go on to look for its counterparts on a smaller scale in the individual.
Socrates, Republic, “Book II.”
As we pick up our swords and light our torches, declaring a deep need to protect ourselves from our enemies, there is rarely a thought to the greater ramifications beyond quelling fear, both personal and interpersonal. This is what drives humanity to commit crime after crime, besieging violence against itself over and again. The argument of who threw the first punch can go back generations, resulting in conflicts that go beyond history books and into the myths that serve as the foundation of faith. There can be no justice without virtue. How we treat each other individually matters as much as how we, as a state, a country, or world, treat each other. Put another way, fictional President Josiah Bartlett, played to perfection by Martin Sheen, states in The West Wing episode 6 of season 4 “Game On,” written by Aaron Sorkin and Paul Redford, “Every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong. But those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many unnuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for ten words.” This is all to say simply that the binary approach of how we, the citizens of the United States, treat our enemies matters just as much as how we treat our friends. After September 11th, 2001, the United States felt a terror it had never experienced before. In that moment, finding those responsible seemed like a divine right and, in so doing, we let go of any moral high ground in the process. Adapted from the book Guantánamo Diary, director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) tells the story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a man kept imprisoned by the U.S. government for more than 14 years without charges on the suspicion of being the recruiter for Osama Bin Ladin’s detailed attack.
There’s no denying the horror that was enacted on 9/11. There is, however, space to argue that the manner in which the United States government sought justice was too far towards vengeance to account for the variety of broken civil liberties enacted upon suspected members of terrorists groups. The screenplay by M. B. Traven (Chasing Planes: Witnesses to 9/11), Rory Haines (Amazon’s Informer), and Sohrab Noshirvani (Amazon’s Informer), adapted from Traven’s script inspired by Slahi’s book, delicately presents the warring sides of the story in the most literal and metaphorical sense. As though to play into the audience’s own bias, the film first introduces the audience to Mohamedou (Tahar Rahim) who’s attending a wedding before being escorted away by Mauritanian police. Mohamedou is the center of the story, an individual meant to draw sympathy from the audience, yet, in the presentation, there’s enough slyness coming off Rahim to arouse and introduce suspicion. I can’t say with certainty if Macdonald’s intent within the introduction is to make the audience immediately presume guilt, but the fact that there’s even a moment wherein the audience might question Mohamedou’s innocence before even knowing the allegations speaks volumes to the subconscious bias which exists when connecting the notion of 9/11 with anyone from the Middle Eastern region of Africa. Here begins the metaphorical war which persists through the introduction of defense lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and prosecutor Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch). They serve to represent two sides of the same coin: that the law matters and the manner in which we conduct ourselves within the law serves as the foundation for our society. For Hollander, taking the case is about ensuring that the rights of all people are upheld, spurred a bit by a 2004 Supreme Court decision that detainees in Guantánamo Bay deserved the same rights as prisoners on the mainland. For Couch, a friend of his was the co-pilot on United Airlines Flight 175 which struck Tower Two of the World Trade center. The fight is profoundly personal for each, setting the stakes demonstrably high, and, via a nice balance of the script and performances that never veer into the expected big or “high laurel” delivery of such material, pulling the audience into the story beyond the expectations set forward by the opening as the film reveals itself to be more than about finding the people responsible for 9/11, but about how one country lost its soul in the process.
… piety means prosecuting the unjust individual who has committed murder or sacrilege, or any other such crime, as I am doing now, whether he is your father or your mother or whoever he is; and I say that impiety means not prosecuting him. And observe, Socrates, I will give you a clear proof, which I have already given to others, that it is o, and that doing right means not letting off unpunished the sacrilegious man, whosever he may be.
The whole of The Mauritanian is slow and patient, taking its time to introduce characters and establish stakes beyond the ones the time and period shorthand. By doing this, the messages and themes within the story are able to seep in gradually, especially while building to the true horrors within Guantánamo Bay and what that means for the U.S. justice system. Through the patience, the audience is likely to forget that they’re watching a true story, not a piece of utter fiction, so that they become slowly aware of the evitable. This, dear reader, is where I offer a note of caution for anyone with sound or light sensitives as there is a prolonged sequence, staged and shot masterfully by Macdonald, in which the audience observes Mohamedou’s torture at the orders of the U.S. government. If this had been told to us right off the bat, it would’ve come across as crude and as seeking to titillate by way of Islamophobia. Instead, the script takes its time getting there so that the prolonged sequence hits the audience and its characters like a shot to the solar plexus, leaving all involved a little broken, a little smaller, and a little less blind to nationalism cavorting around as patriotism.
Well, then, this is what I meant by the question which I asked you. Is there always piety where there is justice? Or, though there is always justice where there is piety, yet there is not always piety where there is justice, because piety is only a part of justice?
The Mauritanian is, entirely, a surprise. From the premise, it’s expected to be some kind of Awards Season bait, yet it never declares so in any aspect. The performances by the cast are tempered and measured, the direction purposeful, and the script unwinds itself across two timelines at a diligent pace so that the 2+ hours pass with relative ease. The all-around soft touch by Macdonald, his cast, and crew enables the delicate emotional heft to be carried so that the audience finds themselves, by the conclusion, a mess of tears both for the stirring ending and for the declaration of how depraved the U.S. became in the pursuit of justice. There is no more moral high ground to be had on the global stage. If we had it after years of conflicts, we lost it the moment our protective services debased themselves to find information that is, at best, helpful to the cause, and, at worst, a waste of time. The search for those responsible for the heinous attack on 9/11 can only remain just if the tactics used are just. That’s easy to proclaim when I, myself, have never been eligible for combat and, therefore, can only write and speak from a philosophical point of view. Except, solider or civilian, all we have is our honor. Via the deplorable acts conducted upon Mohamedou Ould Slahi and others it is clear that the government of the United States of America failed the global community and lost our honor is a pursuit fueled by rage and fear, not justice nor piety. As more stories like The Mauritanian are told perhaps there’s a chance we can get some of our honor back.
For information on Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s book Guantánamo Diary, head to its official website.
For information on STX Entertainment’s The Mauritanian, head the official film website.
In select theaters February 19th, 2021.
Available on VOD March 2nd, 2021.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.