The Mauritanian, 2021.
Directed by Kevin Macdonald.
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley, Tahar Rahim, Zachary Levi, Langley Kirkwood, Corey Johnson, Matthew Marsh, Sammer Usmani, David Fynn, André Jacobs, Meena Rayann, Arthur Falko, Stevel Marc, and Robert Hobbs.
Mohamedou Ould Salahi fights for freedom after being detained and imprisoned without charge by the U.S. Government for years.
Despite The Mauritanian playing out procedurally and almost statically, there are a number of elements working in its favor. At its core, Kevin Macdonald’s look at Guantánamo Bay torture is about Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim), a detainee charged over years with alleged connections to 9/11 terrorism yet without any actual evidence from the US government. In that regard, it’s a tale of an indomitable spirit admirably clinging to his faith while enduring unimaginable horrors, picking up the English language in the process, and making a prisoner friend along the way. Tahar Rahim is exceptional in the role, calm and collected contrasted with restrained fear and humanity as the guards take up extreme measures to break him mentally and physically.
None of that is necessarily breaking new ground (much of the same redacted abuse was on display in 2019’s The Report, a film with more energy than The Mauritanian but lacking the focused structure here), but there is a smart decision to save that violence for an extended sequence towards the end that is disturbingly stylish, cleverly edited to distort reality and fantasy, and all-around something out of a horror movie. I’m not sure how it all appears in the Guantánamo Bay memoirs that have been adapted by multiple screenwriters here, but there is a heavy bluntness when forced to consume all of that at once.
The context of such a key sequence is also vital to The Mauritanian‘s success, juxtaposing humanitarian defense attorney Nancy Hollander (all-time great Jodie Foster) and military prosecutor Stuart Coach (Benedict Cumberbatch) on different sides of the investigation yet both withheld from reading crucial information. Even before this all comes to a head it’s clear that The Mauritanian is not a film about opposing sides but rather the graphic truth being obstructed from both of them. I also have no doubts that the real Stuart Coach (who went on to get involved with Donald Trump) has been softened into a more likable and redeemable human being here, it’s worth applauding pointing the finger at the corrupt bigger picture. Doubly so considering that the film is comfortable pointing out some missteps of both the Bush and Obama administration handling the situation. It also helps that Stuart has some personal motives when it comes to fighting Mohamedou so hard.
If there is a problem with any of this, it’s the lack of any real suspense. For a little over two hours, we follow Nancy and Stuart working within a broken system to obtain actual information, which comes down to motions being filed against the US government and close friendships questioned. Nancy also works alongside her associate (and initially a translator before they learn Mohamedou is now fluent in English) Teri (Shailene Woodley), where the deeper down the rabbit hole they go they are forced to reassess if they believe Mohamedou’s innocence while remembering that the work they are doing is also not about whether he is telling the truth or not, but a matter of human rights. There’s a great exchange placing them at odds with one another, although it’s less effective given that this is still somewhat recent history and the outcome is fairly obvious. Nevertheless, it’s wise pairing each of these characters up with someone else in order to add something else to the investigation process beyond obtaining files.
With that in mind, it pleasantly always feels like The Mauritanian is Tahar Rahim’s film, taking us on a journey from a promising foreign exchange student in Germany to accused of the unthinkable over some far-fetched associations. It’s the story of a man who thought the American government was more trustworthy than his Mauritanian homeland, broken down but refusing to let go of his spirit. There is genuine inspiration and emotion behind the performance, with the hope that the wrongdoings and atrocities committed against him could bridge some unity between us all.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com