Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB
United Kingdom/USA, 2021. Wonder Street, 30West, BBC Films, Convergent Media, Great Point Media, Shadowplay Features, SunnyMarch, Topic Studios. Screen story by Michael Bronner, Screenplay by Michael Bronner, Rory Haines, Sohrab Noshirvani, based on the book Guantánamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi and Larry Siems. Cinematography by Alwin H. Kuchler. Produced by Adam Ackland, Michael Bronner, Leah Clarke, Benedict Cumberbatch, Christine Holder, Mark Holder, Beatriz Levin, Lloyd Levin, Branwen Prestwood Smith. Music by Tom Hodge. Production Design by Michael Carlin. Costume Design by Alexandra Byrne. Film Editing by Justine Wright. Golden Globe Awards 2020.
America’s determination to bring the perpetrators of 9/11 to justice sees Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim) arrested by the U.S. government on suspicion on having been a key player in the events of that unforgettable day. Slahi had trained briefly in an Al Qaeda camp when he had gone to Afghanistan to support the mujahideen against the Najibullah government (which the U.S. was also against), later returned to Mauritania and was cleared of any further involvement with Al Qaeda, then two months after that fateful day, turned himself over to local authorities for questioning. Thinking he would be home that same night, Slahi is instead turned over to the U.S. authorities who transfer him to Guantanamo Bay and subject him to sixteen years of imprisonment before he would see freedom again. Some time later in New Mexico, defense attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) learns of Slahi’s situation and decides it will be her next pro-bono case. She’s advised against it, defending a 9/11 terrorist is not the way to impress future corporate clients, but she insists that Slahi’s never having been charged or brought to trial is a violation of his rights as an American prisoner, part of her concern with the erosion of Habeas Corpus that Donald Rumsfeld and president George W. Bush are pushing for. Hollander flies down to Cuba with her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) and they interview Slahi, and over time and through repeated interviews learn of his experiences in prison, raising Hollander’s suspicions about why exactly the government has chosen to build a prison so far away from American legal oversight. The possibility that Slahi might be guilty eventually overwhelms Duncan and she finds herself needing to bow out of the project, leaving Hollander to deal with mountains of severely retracted documents alone, while on the prosecution side Lt. Col. Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) is preparing to bring the government’s case against Slahi and finds his own conscious challenged by the shady secrets he uncovers. This is a galvanizing and deeply involving political drama by Kevin Macdonald, who makes feature films almost as sharp and unforgettable as his documentaries and here, as always, elicits terrific performances from a top-flight cast. Foster’s brittle intelligence is just right for Hollander, Rahim’s simmering anger beneath his handsome face makes him the ideal romantic hero in such a melodramatic circumstance and Woodley brings the right level of conscience to a woman trying to participate in world politics while keeping the peace in her own neighbourhood. Cumberbatch is as miscast as he always is when playing Americans (witness August: Osage County), working hard on that accent but never quite capturing the swagger that a more suitable actor would have brought to the part. Where Macdonald gets things muddy, though, is in presenting his story in a contradictory spirit: Hollander is not there to prove Slahi’s innocence or win hearts over to Slahi’s side, she’s defending the letter of American law that involves giving everyone a fair trial even when it goes against emotional demands for punishing the wicked. Macdonald’s film, however, based as it is on Slahi’s Guantanamo Diary, is a vindication of the man’s innocence and undercuts the intelligent legal aspect of the story by emphasizing sympathy, going into painstaking detail about his horrifying experiences in a familiar structure of political thriller storytelling that never feels fresh or original. For those who didn’t appreciate Kathryn Bigelow’s hands-off approach to military torture in Zero Dark Thirty, presented there as a factual reality without either condemning or endorsing, the explicit dramatization of Slahi’s being put through sleep deprivation, isolation, temperature extremes, beatings and sexual humiliation will make for a cathartic calling out of America’s failings in trying to heal its own wounds. It’s an important part of the man’s story and is put across very effectively, but emotionally focusing the audience in the experiences of the character while treating Hollander’s need to defend the letter of the law as mere story structure undercuts the film’s own attempt at being intelligent and thought-provoking.