I wouldn’t want to aggressively pan any film with the noble intentions of The Mauritanian, but Scottish director Kevin Macdonald’s sluggish recap of the harrowing incarceration of an innocent man suspected of—and held without trial for—terrorism in the hellish Guantanamo Bay prison on the U. S. Naval Base in Cuba, is too long, too labored and more like a news story than a movie. The result is another of those fact-based semi-documentary style films about the need for government transparency that is responsible, sobering, worthwhile and, in my opinion, as boring as the recent halftime show in the 2021 Super Bowl.
Based on the New York Times–bestselling memoir Guantánamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, it tells the grim story of how he was arrested two months after the tragedy of 9/11 and accused of allegedly working for Al-Qaeda to recruit the pilot who flew the plane into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Tortured, terrified and interrogated 18 hours a day for three years without ever being officially charged with any crime, Slahi struggled behind bars to exonerate himself and find his way back to freedom. His pleas were ignored until they were brought to the attention of Nancy Hollander, a lawyer from New Mexico who became determined to find justice. It was an uphill battle that lasted 14 years, and before this movie ends, you will most likely feel like you have lived through every minute of Slahi’s ordeal.
THE MAURITANIAN ★★
Nancy Hollander is played with her usual surfeit of polished professional realism by Jodie Foster, and her assistant, Teri Duncan, is the excellent Shailene Woodley. The U.S. government opposition is headed by Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch, the military prosecutor assigned the ugly task of executing Mohamedou, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who enters the fray with a preconceived prejudice of his own. (Side note: The pilot Mohamedou Slahi was falsely suspected of recruiting for the 9/11 suicide mission that smashed into the World Trade Center actually flew the plane that killed Couch’s best friend.) So with the stage set for Slahi to face overwhelming odds, as good as the other actors may be, it is the French actor Tahar Rahim in the title role who must carry every scene. His resilience, strength, patience and frustration are mesmerizing, but a starring role for an unknown doesn’t exactly guarantee commercial box-office victory.
Director Macdonald shows the cruel and inhuman treatment the victim endures, while the script by M.B. Traven catalogues the ton of research both sides must document, never revealing anything more at any time than is necessary for the defense team, the viewer and the progress of the film’s slow trajectory. As we witness the sexual humiliations, legal betrayals and the physical brutality used to force a false confession, it is obvious why even the prosecutor joins forces with the defense. It’s a thrill to watch Jodie Foster inspire her client to become the first Guantanamo detainee to sue the country, President George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. The impact was as profound as it was controversial.
The Mauritanian demonstrates the tenets of American corruption through a powerful example of American justice. With sounder editing and some badly needed cuts, it could be a better movie than it is, but it’s worth seeing for what it says about the America we’re experiencing now as well as the America of the recent past. Mohamedou Slahi finally won his freedom in October 2016 after 14 years in prison without ever being charged with a single crime, but 40 men continue to be held without trial in Guantanamo. Not one U.S. government agency has ever admitted any responsibility or apology for what happened there. I’m not suggesting a sequel, but think about the possibilities.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.