Benedict Cumberbatch is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get. In this episode I examine two recent Cumberbatch movies based on real life events: The Courier, a CIA-supported historical spy drama where he plays Greville Wynne, the courier for Soviet double agent Oleg Penkovsky; and The Mauritanian, where he plays the prosecutor of an innocent man, Mohamedou Slahi, who was held in Guantanamo Bay for fourteen years. These two films could not be more different in style, tone and politics, as well as in their historical accuracy.
A few months back I found out that the CIA had recently supported a Benedict Cumberbatch film, which led me to both The Courier and The Mauritanian. I certainly quite like watching Cumberbatch – he’s the only good thing in the Star Trek remake of The Wrath of Khan, he was a good choice for Doctor Strange in the Marvel Universe, I liked him as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. He’s versatile, handling grounded, true life roles just as easily as fantasy or sci-fi characters. If it wasn’t for his ridiculous name, he’d be an A-lister.
So I set about watching both of these films, both based on true life stories, both set in the world of intelligence (though more with The Courier than with The Mauritanian). Actually, it was Tricia I mentioned this to and so she said she’d watch The Courier, so I watched The Mauritanian first then after seeing both that there was no way the CIA would have supported that film, and with Tricia’s reaction to The Courier, it became obvious which film was which.
I imagine most of you have never seen these films, or know anything about them. Both officially came out in 2020, but like so many movies over the last year or more, their full release was staggered or delayed so they also sort of came out in 2021. I am amused by just how screwed up the entertainment business is right now – there are $250 million blockbusters, completed films, just sat on the shelf because they’re not sure when or how to release them. The new Top Gun and the new James Bond have been in limbo for a year. And instead we got the Snydercut, which like more than half of the people who saw it, I turned off before getting halfway through.
So what are these films about? The Mauritanian tells the story of Mohamedou Slahi, a Mauritanian man who was detained in 2002 and sent to Guantanamo Bay, where he was held without charge until late 2016. It stars Tahar Rahim as Mohamedou, which is ironic because he also plays Ali Soufan in The Looming Tower, and Soufan is one of the best-known critics of the detention and interrogation programs in the wake of 9/11, especially the use of torture. Jodie Foster also stars as Mohamedou’s lawyer, and Shailene Woodley is also present for some reason, like in every film she’s in.
Benedict plays Stuart Couch, a prosecutor in the JAG corps responsible for prosecuting Mohamedou who ultimately refused to go ahead because he’d been tortured. Couch was involved in several post-9/11 cases where he refused to bring charges or refused to prosecute charges or otherwise protested and objected due to the treatment of prisoners and terror suspects. His arc in the story, from a true believer to a sceptic to an opponent of what was being done in the name of security, is in some ways the core of the story, even though the film is primarily about Mohamedou and his lawyer and Shailene Woodley hanging around.
The Courier tells the story of Oleg Penkovsky and Greville Wynne, the British businessman recruited by MI6 to deal with Penkovsky and be the courier for the thousands of pages of military documents Penkovsky stole and sent to British intelligence. Benedict plays Wynne, Merab Ninidze (who is, of course, Georgian not Russian) plays Penkovsky, and some other people play the MI6 and CIA characters and Greville’s wife.
This film also hangs on Benedict’s performance and his character arc, from slightly bumbling British businessman to gentleman spy to a traumatised prisoner. Everything else in the film has almost no emotional impact or resonance, at least for me. Despite the irritatingly cliched ‘British’ accents I found him perfectly watchable, indeed, the only particularly watchable thing in an otherwise dull shitload of twaddle.
Yet curiously, the critics completely disagreed with me. The Mauritanian got only fairly good reviews, with praise for the acting performances of Jodie Foster and Tahar Rahim in particular, while Cumberbatch’s performance was largely overlooked. The Courier got very positive reviews, with critics heralding the importance of a film that tells a real-life story and relays important facts.
Naturally, I don’t want to propagandise you into agreeing with me, I’m simply going to outline my analysis of these films and how accurate and inaccurate they are, and probably swear a bit, and then you can make up your own mind whether I’m right and the critics are wrong, or whether you are listening to the wrong podcast.
The Courier – CIA Propaganda
I debated with myself which way round to handle these two movies and I opted to do The Courier first, so we can have the better film as desert. I watched them the other way round, though I never eat my meals that way, even though metabolically it may be the better way to do it.
Badly-sourced health advice aside, the real story behind The Courier is a classic bit of Cold War spy history. Oleg Penkovsky was a Soviet GRU (military intelligence) Colonel who became a defector-in-place, or at least an informer, a kind of double agent, providing information to British intelligence from either late 1960 or early 1961 until his arrest in October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Penkovsky was tried, convicted and executed the following year.
Greville Wynne was an electrical engineer who became a small-scale international businessman who was recruited by MI6 in late 1960 to act as an intermediary with Penkovsky. He also became a courier, transporting the documents Penkovsky stole back to London and MI6, who then shared the information with the CIA.
Or at least, that’s one version of the story. Bear with me, because this gets a little complex. Penkovsky’s first overture to the Americans occurred in Moscow in July 1960, when he approached two American students (who may or may not have been working for the American embassy) and gave them a package, to deliver to the CIA station at the embassy. The CIA were somewhat suspicious – bear in mind this is when James Jesus Angleton was a major figure in CIA counterintelligence, and suspected that all Soviet double agents or defectors were somehow plants or moles.
As a result, the Agency did not recruit Penkovsky at that time. According to one version, in the book The Spy Who Saved The World, Greville was then recruited later that year and sent to Moscow by MI6 with the explicit aim of liaising with Penkovsky. But according to Wynne’s own book, The Man from Moscow, it wasn’t until early 1961 that Penkovsky persuaded Wynne to set up a meeting in London with officials from MI6 and the CIA, which he did.
Thus, it’s not at all clear exactly how and when Penkovsky was recruited by British intelligence. Likewise, it’s not clear when Grenville was recruited – according to Wynne’s accounts in his books he was first brought into the intelligence world by MI5 during WW2, while MI6 maintains he had no prior intelligence experience before they recruited him in the 60s.
So there is some kind of smoke and mirrors going on here. It’s interesting that the CIA didn’t recruit Penkovsky, and the British used a go-between to deal with him. This is partly because British intelligence had been rocked by a series of scandals when it emerged that Philby, Burgess, Maclean, Blunt and others had all been turned by the KGB. It seems that they didn’t really trust Penkovsky, and weren’t willing to put one of their own in harm’s way in order to handle him, so they used Greville as an intermediary.
Nonetheless, the whole Penkovsky story is heralded as a huge British intelligence success, because he provided documents on Soviet missile placements in Cuba and thus MI6 alerted the Americans, which supposedly helped stave off the Missile Crisis.
However, there are other sceptics. Peter Wright, the former British intelligence officer who wrote Spycatcher with Paul Greengrass, doesn’t believe Penkovsky was a real defector. He argued in his book that MI6 never got the names of Soviet spies out of him, and that some of the documents he provided were originals, not photocopies, which makes it hard to see how Penkovsky could have stolen them without it being officially sanctioned.
While I have a lot of problems with Wright’s various claims and I do consider him an eccentric, I think his analysis of the Penkovsky case is very compelling. Following all these failures with high ranking spies turning out to be Soviet double agents, the British needed a win. A lot of people got medals and commendations and credit in the wake of the Penkovsky case, so they all went along with the idea it was a highly successful operation in which the only person who died was a Communist, killed by other Communists.
But if Wright is correct, and the Soviets planted Penkovsky on the British in order to make them appear more competent and credible than they really were, to artificially boost the careers of a bunch of idiots who were fucking the dog, then this all lines up a bit differently. It suggests the British were always a bit wary of Penkovsky, while also needing him to be a successful defector-in-place, so they used Greville to keep some distance between themselves and the KGB.
The person who got really screwed over was Greville himself, who was arrested with Penkovsky and spent two years in a Russian prison before being released in a spy swap. All he really did was have some conversations and transport some documents, and to be fair the Soviets only sentenced him to 8 years, it wasn’t the draconian punishment you might expect given the reputation of the Soviet justice system. Bear in mind, the Soviet spy he was swapped for was sentenced to 25 years by the British justice system.
How did Penkovsky and Greville get caught? Well, the KGB apparently knew for a year before they arrested him that he was acting as a double agent, but left him alone in order to protect their source, a high ranking MI6 officer. An NSA employee named Jack Dunlap also found out about Penkovsky, and alerted his KGB handlers, because he was also a double agent.
So, let’s put together the timeline – if the Soviets knew as early as late 1961 that Penkovsky was a double agent working for the British, and in some ways also for the Americans, that’s long before the Soviets starting moving nuclear missiles to Cuba, precipitating the Cuban Missile Crisis. Therefore, they almost certainly knew that Penkovsky was sending information on the Soviet missile bases in Cuba to his Western handlers, and didn’t especially care because they didn’t arrest him until some weeks if not months after he did that.
Adding it all together, this doesn’t sound to me like the story of a genuine defector who helped stop a nuclear war. And after all, the Americans had other means of finding out about the missile bases in Cuba, the Penkovsky information was just one more piece of evidence. It was ultimately Kennedy and Kruschev’s uncomfortable detente, negotiating the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba in exchange for the removal of American missiles from Turkey, that resolved the situation. And Penkovsky didn’t have a damn thing to do with that.
Historical Inaccuracies in The Courier
Naturally, none of this makes it into the film, which tells a simple story of Penkovsky’s initial approach in mid-1960, MI6 recruiting Greville to be their liaison, the operations to smuggle the documents, the two of them getting arrested and Greville ultimately being freed. It is very much presented as a tale of a successful MI6-CIA collaboration that helped stop a nuclear war, which even in general terms isn’t a true story.
It’s when we delve into some of the specifics that the movie’s agenda – and possibly the CIA’s propaganda concerns on this project – become clearer. It’s obvious from their CREST database that both the Penkovsky story and the Greville trial, conviction and eventual release were something they were keeping a close eye on.
But there aren’t that many memos concerning the intelligence Penkovsky was providing, suggesting this wasn’t the ‘windfall’ that Richard Helms recalls in his memoirs. There are a handful of documents on briefings to the President on what was happening to Oleg after he was arrested and sent to gulag. Obviously CREST is not a complete database, but it’s curious how few internal documents there are about this Soviet double agent who apparently provided 5,000 pages of classified military material to the West.
As to the film itself – I didn’t enjoy it, on the whole. Cumberbatch’s performance is suitably nervous and twitchy, but that clashes with the fairly jocular tone of the first two thirds of the story. Unlike Bridge of Spies, which managed to capture some of that Cold War mystery and paranoia, this is almost a Britcom for the first two acts, but without any jokes. Then Greville gets arrested and it turns into a prison-based psychological thriller for the final act, which is the best part of the film by far but isn’t earned by what comes before it.
Honestly, I felt the script and the directing clashed in fundamental ways, and there was no clear vision behind this film besides making a spy movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch, because people like him. It clearly wasn’t made for a lot of money – most of it was filmed in London or in the Czech Republic, which doubles for Russia. There is some stock footage jammed in at a few points which does nothing to add to the authenticity because it’s quite obvious and jarring. All in all, a badly crafted film until the final act, which is really well done.
It seems the politics of the film were a major reason why it got made – both to reflect a version of Britishness back at a domestic audience, and project that image out to the world in the classic ‘soft power’ format. The British and Americans are largely noble, if boring, while the Ruskies are hideous stereotypes, except for Penkovsky, the one good Communist because he’s actually on the side of the capitalists. Just like when the only good Muslim in a spy show is the double agent inside the terror network.
Fuck me, this stuff is getting a bit obvious and tedious. Over 20 years ago The Sopranos conclusively established that people really like entertainment that depicts a morally complex, difficult world i.e. the world we actually live in, and the days of crude white supremacist vehicles starring John Wayne single handedly defeating the Indians or the Gooks or the Wop-Jockeys are over.
And while this film isn’t explicitly racist, you will notice that every single person in The Courier is white, but it’s only the Western whites who are heroes. The Russians are portrayed horribly, and utterly one-dimensionally. The film opens with a speech by Nikita Kruschev supposedly on August 12th 1960, where he talks about how the Soviet nuclear arsenal is growing every day, and finishing with the phrase ‘we will bury them’.
There are a few problems with this – for one thing, Krushchev never gave a speech in Moscow on August 12th 1960, let alone about the empire falling and the rising Soviet nuclear arsenal. For another, the phrase ‘we will bury them’ is misattributed to Kruschev, when he actually said ‘we will bury you’ and he wasn’t referring to nuclear weapons. In 1956, not 1960, he addressed a group of ambassadors, not the Communist party, in the Polish embassy in Moscow, not the party headquarters, and said to them, not the party members, ‘About the capitalist states, it doesn’t depend on you whether or not we exist. If you don’t like us, don’t accept our invitations, and don’t invite us to come to see you. Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you!’
At which point the envoys from a dozen NATO countries and Israel left the room.
This phrase has been butchered by history and twisted into a sign that Kruschev was some sort of lunatic who wanted to nuke America. And this is the characterisation of him in the film – when Penkovsky outlines his motives for becoming a double agent he says it’s all because of Kruschev, he’s terrified of him, he’s losing the plot, he wants a confrontation with the Americans. It’s the same old ‘Russian strongman’ stereotype we get through thousands of films, TV shows and news broadcasts, so in this film Kruschev is basically the same as Stalin, who is basically the same as Putin. The fact that they had to invent and fake history in order to create this characterisation should tell you just how false and ahistorical it is.
Also, this comes before Penkovsky’s approach to the two students in Moscow, which happened in July. So the timeline and historical accuracy have been ritually sodomised within the opening five minutes of the film. This approach directly leads to the CIA asking MI6 to step in and handle Penkovsky – which didn’t happen.
The CIA character is an Aryan lady, in keeping with the trend of the last 10 years of CIA-supported productions. There was no young, blonde female CIA officer involved in the Penkovsky case and let’s face it, in the early 1960s the Agency would not have sent such a person to London to deal with an extremely sensitive operation involving a possible Soviet defector. They wouldn’t even have sent a young man, it would have been someone experienced, seasoned.
So we don’t only have the recruitment propaganda of ‘young women, join the CIA and you can travel the world in your 20s running beyond top secret operations’ and the geopolitical propaganda of ‘the Russians are to blame for everything’, we also have the international cooperation/special relationship propaganda, and a rewriting of history to make it seem like the CIA were at the centre of this operation when they weren’t.
That whole character felt like a bunch of CIA PR to me. Not only does she come marching in and calls the older, more experienced British officers ‘boys’, which would not have happened in 1960, but she effectively brings them the operation, making the pecking order clear. They also refer to the Popov case, where the CIA bungled a defector, he was exposed and the Soviets executed him, which is depicted in classic bullet to the head style which is so common in depictions of Russia and Russians.
Indeed, it’s getting to the point where I wonder who, if anyone, endures more cinematic racism than Russians. Black people? Not so much. They are often sidelined and condescended and ignored, but rarely depicted as a congenitally evil people. Arabs, maybe, but as the war on terror has slipped off the media agenda in favour of much more serious issues like allegations of sexual harassment on Hollywood film sets, Arabs terrorists have become less common movie villains. Whereas Russians turn up in everything from sitcoms to reality shows, from spy movies to Stranger Things, always the same – emotionless, cruel, evil. The fact that in almost every Cold War spy film they refer to ‘the Russians’ rather than ‘the Soviets’ also helps evoke the last few years with the Russiagate racist conspiracy theory.
So, MI6 recruit Greville and use him, as they did in real life, as a cut-out who met with Oleg in Russia, and took batches of documents from him and returned with them to London. The film also depicts a lot of family drama because Greville can’t tell his wife what he’s up to, and she suspects he’s having another affair, but there’s another curious element that I find a bit contradictory and baffling.
Greville doesn’t just operate as an asset in the field for MI6, he also works as Oleg’s handler, providing him reassurance and emotional support. He doesn’t direct him to steal specific documents or anything like that, but he is more than just a courier. This helps set up their personal bond, which is crucial for the final act of the film, but it seems highly implausible to me.
MI6’s ostensible reason for using a cut-out, rather than handling Oleg directly themselves, was a concern about being embarrassed by another Soviet intelligence operation. The film doesn’t mention this, because the long history of MI6’s failure to spot all these Soviet spies and double agents isn’t something the film-makers, and likely MI6 and the CIA too, wanted to remind audiences of. My reading of the recruitment of Greville is that MI6 felt that if Oleg was a fake defector in place, that if someone was going to be ensnared by this trap, better it be an unofficial asset than an actual MI6 officer.
But if they wanted Greville to handle Oleg as, effectively, his agent then why pick someone who supposedly had no intelligence experience? This part of the film is somewhat accurate – the two did develop a personal bond, but it makes no sense if Greville was just this businessman who they plucked off the street. Cumberbatch plays the role well, as a typical neophyte fish out of water being inducted into the secret world, just like in every other CIA-supported film. But it doesn’t quite work from a tradecraft point of view, because if he was this nervous about what he was doing then MI6 were taking more of a risk than if they’d just handled Penkovsky themselves.
Where the film gets hilariously deviant from history, and very propagandistic, is when
Greville and attractive young blonde CIA lady demand that they exfiltrate Oleg and bring him to the West. The KGB are getting close to Greville, so they assume they must be getting close to Oleg, and therefore they have to get him out. This makes no sense, because if the KGB suspected Oleg was working with Greville, they’d first check on Oleg, not Greville. Oleg is in Moscow full time, Greville only visits.
Then there’s the scene where they briefly plan out this totally made-up exfiltration on a map, and CIA lady says ‘If we can get the Penkovskys out of Moscow clean, we should be alright.’ That’s not how exfiltrations work, and given that there’s 773 km between Moscow and the boat in Sosnovy Bor, that’s several days of travelling before the Penkovskys could be considered ‘alright’. This is where you know that you’re watching badly made propaganda, when it not only departs from history to make MI6 and the CIA look good, but when it also departs from reality.
The exfiltration goes bad, and Greville and Penkovsky are arrested and imprisoned by the KGB. Unlike many films, this third act, which culminates in a spy swap and Greville coming home, is by far the most engaging and provocative part of the movie. This film doesn’t have third act problems, it has first and second act problems and a very good third act. But at no point does it let up on how evil the Russians are, there is basically no humanity shown towards Greville by his captors.
This is one of the reasons I wanted to compare these two films – in some ways, they are both prison stories. The whole third act of The Courier is basically set in a Russian prison in the 1960s, and long sequences in The Mauritanian are set in the prison at Guantanamo Bay. There are visual and physical similarities between the movies, as well as sharing Benedict Cumberbatch.
Aside from both being based on true stories, it is here that the comparisons end, because The Mauritanian has a much more serious tone, and is politically the opposite sort of film – one that portrays the Western security state as the horror show it truly is. It is based on Mohamedou Slahi’s diary, itself based on a written account of his incarceration that he put together for his lawyers.
Essentially, Mohamedou was on the periphery of Al Qaeda – he went to Afghanistan in the early 90s to train with them but he never fought in Bosnia, or had anything to do with the WTC bombing or the embassy bombings or the USS Cole bombing. He once received a phonecall from a relative who was at an Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan, using Bin Laden’s satellite phone, and lived in Canada at the time of the Millenium Plot, but it seems had nothing to do with that either. According to some of the early ‘terror suspect’ detainees he was a recruiter for the 9/11 plot, though there’s absolutely no corroboration for this, and given the tenuous nature of his connection to Al Qaeda, which ended years before the hijackers were recruited it’s certainly bullshit.
After 9/11 Mohamedou turned himself in to the Mauritanian authorities in November, 2001, with the intention of clearing his name of involvement in the Millenium Plot. He was questioned by the Mauritanian police and by the FBI, and even though they had no evidence of him being involved in that plot or in 9/11 he was handed over to the CIA. The Agency dumped him in a Jordanian prison for several months, where he was tortured, then moved him to Afghanistan for a short while, then moved him to Guantanamo Bay. From the summer of 2002 until his release in October 2016 he lived at Gitmo.
The film tells several parts of this story, both his lawyer’s attempts to get him freed (including a fine performance from Jodie Foster) and the prosecution’s problems with getting access to the evidence needed to prosecute him, with the lead prosecutor played by Cumberbatch.
There are some problems with the script, which is always the case when you’re picking up events running from 2002 to 2016 and trying to provide some kind of through-line and continuity. The film suffers from an inability to get across the sheer length of time Mohamedou was imprisoned for, and it does move some events around to try to give the story more shape, but it still lacks shape. At no point in the movie do you have any sense of how far through the story we are, which works well in a mystery thriller but less well in a historical drama.
Those criticisms aside, I felt this film was excellent. Jodie Foster is at her most Jodie Foster, in that she’s very smart and assertive but a little emotionally cold, Cumberbatch’s performance as the prosecutor who has a change of heart is subtle, and Mohamedou is a very sympathetic protagonist – ironic, a little weird but clearly a kind-hearted man. The individual scenes are very well executed, I’ve liked Kevin McDonald’s work as a director for a long time, even if the overall shape and structure of the film has some weaknesses.
Plus, it tells a true story that deserves to be told. This man was imprisoned for 15 years, almost solely on the basis of once getting a phone call from Bin Laden’s satellite phone. Well, you know who else got calls from that phone? The offices of Al Muqatila, the terrorist group MI6 sponsored to try to kill Gaddafi in the 1990s, who set up bases in London and Manchester after the assassination attempt failed and they had to flee Libya. Ayamn Al Zawahiri regularly called them up to dictate communiques which they then published.
And yet, after 9/11, when Libya said they would happily join in the West’s struggle against Al Qaeda and associated groups, one of the first things they did was send a list of Al Muqatila members to the British authorities, saying they wanted to speak with them. Needless to say, the British authorities did not hand over any members of Al Muqatila, and one of their sons went on to bomb the Manchester Arena, though whether he knew he was carrying a bomb is another question. As is why the British Navy helped exfiltrate him from Libya in the aftermath of the 2011 war, which Al Muqatila fought in on the same side as NATO.
If all this sounds like a much more important basis for a criminal investigation than one Mauritanian dude who trained in some Al Qaeda camps for a while but had nothing to do with any terrorist attacks then that’s because it is.
So stories like the one told in The Mauritanian are important. Guantanamo Bay is still open, and while most of the detainees have been either released (such as several who were sent to Libya to fight in the 2011 war) or moved elsewhere, we’ve never come to terms with what we did there, psychologically, morally, politically, legally. This story touches on all those dimensions, focusing on the legal and psychological elements but there is some morality and politics in there too.
Before we move on to look at Cumberbatch’s role in this film, which is the most interesting part of it, I do want to dwell for a moment on the depictions of torture in this film. While they aren’t quite as graphic or prolonged as those in The Report this is the first time (that I can remember seeing) where the sexual abuse is shown. This is something that came up a lot more in military detention facilities than in CIA black sites, at least as far as I know, and frequently involved female military guards raping male detainees. This happened at Gitmo, this happened at Abu Ghraib.
Consider, 20 years ago most people had no idea what waterboarding is but now it’s fairly common knowledge, it has had a lot of news coverage, it’s been referred to or even depicted in dozens of films and TV shows. But how many people are aware that there were women in the military who were raping predominantly Arab men in order to ‘protect us from the next 9/11’? This gets into a wider topic about why sexual violence towards men, especially when it comes from women, isn’t discussed or even acknowledged by much of society, and this isn’t the place for all of that, but I do want to applaud the film-makers for including this in a non-exploitative way, for daring to break that taboo. Anything that helps people actually talk about things they aren’t allowed to talk about but should be able to, is a good thing.
Lt Col Stuart Couch
Stuart Couch was chosen as the prosecutor for Mohamedou’s case, one of the first to be chosen for prosecution. Remember, most of the detainees were never put on trial and there was never any intention of doing so, but they had to be seen to be prosecuting someone. As the film highlights, Couch knew one of the pilots whose planes were hijacked on 9/11, and his wife and the pilot’s wife worked together, so the families were fairly close.
In any standard proceeding this could be challenged by the defence as a conflict of interest, but the Gitmo-based proceedings were highly unusual. So the military got away with appointing a prosecutor with a personal animus towards to the defendant, and likely chose Couch precisely because they hoped he’d overlook all the problems with the case and prosecute it anyway.
But it turned out that Couch was a decent man, and he refused to prosecute on the basis of processed intelligence summaries that didn’t make clear where or when the information had originated. He chased down the original records – the MFRs or Memoranda For the Record – and the CIA told him to talk to the commander at Guantanamo Bay. He goes down there, and starts to realise what’s been happening.
In this scene, the commander of the base mentions SERE – Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape – training, where as part of military training you are imprisoned and subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques including stress positions, waterboarding, sleep deprivation and the like. In the post-9/11 world a popular excuse for torture was that they were simply reverse engineering SERE training. Even leaving aside the moral and legal travesty, SERE is designed to build resistance to interrogation, so how on earth they thought doing the same things, for much longer periods, to ‘terror suspects’ would somehow make them easier to interrogate, is beyond me.
Likewise, the attitude the commander expresses, that because Marines and others who go through this training come out of the other side OK that doing the same things, for much more prolonged periods, would not do serious damage to ‘terror suspects’. If there wasn’t a fundamental difference in what they were doing then how did they expect it to be effective? It’s all just a bunch of contradiction and doublespeak being used to excuse torturing people, to excuse sadistic vengeance. And needless to say, SERE training does not involve being tied down and having women rape you while wearing animal masks.
The film could have done more to draw out these contradictions, particularly when compared to The Report, which covers how two former Air Force psychologists ‘reverse engineered SERE training’ and sold it to the CIA as enhanced interrogation. They actually put a lot of these arguments into the dialogue, actually had characters make these points. It makes an otherwise slightly stuffy story of people looking at documents and writing a report into more of a dramatic experience. The Mauritanian missed a trick, both politically and dramatically, by not doing something similar.
One little distinction between The Mauritanian and The Courier is that there are occasional moments of humanity between Mohamedou and the guards at Gitmo, one guard in particular. We might argue that this is because an American-made film cannot depict Americans as fundamentally evil, but I think we can do better than that. In reality, just as there are Russians working in the Russian military or prisons who aren’t evil bastards, the same is true of Americans or any other people.
I don’t want to see films that portrays Americans in the cartoonish, racist stereotypes that American films use to portray Russians. I want American films to stop doing this, I want to see culture that embraces the complexities of decent people working in corrupt institutions, because that’s real life. Obviously I want to see more films about whistleblowers and others working to subvert or counter those institutions, to encourage more people to do that in real life, but there’s an intelligent and subtle way to do that.
The most explicitly political and moral dialogue comes when Couch confronts a friend and military colleague about what he found out when he eventually got hold of the MFRs of Mohamedou’s interrogations.
This is one of those scenes that I find a little tricky to judge, because while I’m all in favour of this story being told and these views being articulated, I felt that they should have pushed it further. After all, this is something that has faded from people’s memories and surely one of the aims of the film was to remind people, was to not just let this shameful chapter be consigned to the hazy collective memory bank. But the reasons why this matters are that it was a moral and legal abomination that has never seen any meaningful accountability, and that it was based on the lie that Al Qaeda had the capacity to carry out a 2nd 9/11. That was never explicitly expressed at any point, so the film left me feeling like it was playing to an audience like me, someone who already thinks like this, someone who has never forgotten that these things happened. There wasn’t much in there for people who will have been outraged when they learned about the black sites and Guantanamo Bay and so on, but then got distracted by Snowden, Syria, Russiagate, Trump and so on.
I think The Mauritanian is a fine film, but in terms of being a counterpoint to the CIA’s narrative, the Zero Dark Thirty narrative, it doesn’t do as strong a job as The Report. Perhaps that’s also because I relate to a story based around an investigator much more closely than I relate to a story about lawyers. I did like how The Mauritanian didn’t avoid the fact that Mohamedou won his freedom, but then the Obama administration appealed that ruling and it was several further years before he was finally released. Given that this is an administration who came to power promising to shut down Gitmo, that they effectively kept this innocent man in prison, without charge or trial, for several years when he’d already spent a decade being held illegally, says everything you need to know about that abominable batch of utterly vile people.
What I found interesting when reading reviews of these two films is that The Courier is rated more highly, with many of the reviews praising the fact that being based on a true life story adds to its importance. Very few of the reviews of The Mauritanian said the same thing. This reveals just how historically ignorant film reviewers are, but that should come as no surprise and let’s face it, very few people have my breadth and depth of historical knowledge.
It also reveals the political bias of a lot of film reviewers, because their praise for a less accurate movie with an anti-Russian, pro-MI6 and pro-CIA narrative was not mirrored by praise for a more accurate movie with an anti-CIA, anti-military perspective. If history is important, then surely both of these films are equally important for telling stories based on real events? Politics shouldn’t come into it, but of course it does.
To round us off, I do want to pose a question – is Benedict Cumberbatch the British Tom Hanks? Because he is building quite a career playing real life people, often involved in politics or at least something with massive political implications. He played Julian Assange in the terrible movie about Assange and Wikileaks, he played Dominic Cummings in a high-budget TV drama about Brexit, Alan Turing, Pitt the Younger – he has already played a big range of public figures. And like Hanks, these are often virtuous men in stressful situations, certainly both of these two films we’ve looked at today fall into that category. So as Hanks is getting a bit old for this shit, we can probably expect more of this sort of film with Cumberbatch in a starring role.