[Review] ‘THE MAURITANIAN’ wages war against the bureaucracy of cruelty in fact-based story

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

THE MAURITANIAN

Rated R, 129 minutes.
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Cast: Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim, Shailene Woodley, Zachary Levi, and Benedict Cumberbatch

September 11, 2001, changed everything. 

Much like December 7, 1941, it is a day that will live in infamy and a day that saw Americans join in solidarity. For a short period, there was no black or white. The only colors that mattered were red, white, and blue. America was angry and wanted its pound of flesh. But in the aftermath of the 3,000 lives lost and the establishment of agencies like the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) – not to mention the trillions spent in sending military across the world to Afghanistan, Iraq, and other territories – a steep price was paid.

Innocence was lost that day. The response was swift and exacting, and yet seemingly, this War on Terror is a war without an ending. 

Hollywood has produced several post-9/11 features that have used the war as a means to give a critical, albeit dramatized, eye in how the U.S. government has treated those believed behind the actions on September 11, 2001. The subject has been broached and analyzed in films like ZERO DARK THIRTY and THE REPORT. THE MAURITANIAN, the latest offering, looks back at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp and prisoner 760, Mohamedou Ould Salahi. 

Based on Salahi’s memoir, Guantánamo Diary (published in 2015), this drama of injustice details his decade-plus long ordeal of wrongful incarceration. Whereas ZERO DARK THIRTY depicted the complicity of enhanced interrogation techniques and THE REPORT investigated the CIA’s use of torture after 9/11, Kevin Macdonald’s drama approaches it in a procedural nature, with an ACLU lawyer defending Salahi.    

Two months following the World Trade Center attacks, Salahi (Tahar Rahim) is taken from his home country of Mauritania on account of alleged ties to Osama bin Laden. Rendered to Jordan only to later be transferred to the Parwan Detention Facility in Afghanistan before ending up at Guantanamo Bay, Salahi is confined to a cell without being formally charged with anything.

Four years later, news about his unlawful incarceration reaches ACLU lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster). Nancy, known to ruffle more feathers than a Thanksgiving turkey on account of her obstinacy in righting wrongs, takes the case. To her, it didn’t matter if Salahi was guilty or innocent; it’s about the rule of law and being able to prove her client was wronged. Helping Nancy on the quest is legal assistant Teri (Shailene Woodley), and together they work the specifics of Salahi’s imprisonment. Going through boxes and boxes of redacted material, specifically the classified MFRs (Memorandum for Reports), details Salahi’s treatment. 

The story works us back through the horrors. As Nancy and Teri mount a defense, Benedict Cumberbatch, sporting a Virginian accent as honeyed as ham, is Marine Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Couch, the military prosecutor working to find Salahi guilty. Curiously, all parties are stymied over the evidence and roadblocks encountered. When the revelation about Salahi’s treatment comes to light, as both Nancy and Col. Couch read the reports, the intercutting and depiction of the enhanced interrogation techniques used on Salahi is comparable to the images seen in Oliver Stone’s NATURAL BORN KILLERS. It’s that shocking.

On a long enough timeline moments that were once paramount bare little significance. Twenty years removed from the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the individual freedoms we’ve surrendered for the “greater good” seems less important to how we have treated those suspected of terrorist acts. Face it: the U.S. government is a bureaucratic quagmire full of landmines, some of which have gone off like the sound of a whistleblower.      

THE MAURITANIAN rips open a new hole in America’s fabric of human indecency, but it shouldn’t be a surprise considering the nation’s history. 

Though the film has Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch among its thespians, Tahar Rahim is the one to watch. He broke out on the scene in 2009’s A PROPHET and would work with director Kevin Macdonald a few years later on THE EAGLE. As Mohamedou Ould Salahi, we see him resigned to life at Gitmo: a pulverized personality who shows brief flashes of optimism. A prisoner thanks to a system sanctioned by many Americans in the wake of 9/11. Rahim’s recounting of his stay at Guantanamo succeeds as an accelerant for condemnation.  

Rahim’s performance and Jodie Foster’s help overpower a screenplay that blends subplots to shape the lawsuit and the characters better. To Nancy, Salahi’s case is an irresistible challenge, and yet, surprisingly, she comes across the least sympathetic. Col. Couch has a crisis of conscience; the case is of a personal nature on account of a friend piloting one of the planes that went into the towers. He has the more emotional angle that is somewhat downplayed because of the story’s procedural nature, which makes sense as Salahi’s treatment is of utmost importance. As for Salahi, the journey he takes is mostly psychological as memories with family in Mauritania and away in Germany flash across the screen, as well as his time spent being interrogated. His written descriptions help reveal just how atrocious his atrocity was.        

THE MAURITANIAN is a story of persistence and unjust imprisonment. While the picture has an overstuffed last act, Foster and Rahim’s strong work makes it an impactful account that again exposes America’s failure at human decency.  

Grade: B

THE MAURITANIAN is now playing in select theaters and will become available March 2 on Premium Video-On-Demand.

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