Theatrical Review: The Mauritanian (2021)

Directed by: Kevin Macdonald. Starring: Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch. Runtime: 2h 9 min. Released: February 9, 2021

In a great story with The Mauritanian, Tahar Rahim plays Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a man who was kept at Guantanamo Bay without charge for years by the U.S. government because he was accused for being one of the major recruiters of the 9/11 attacks.

The film opens with Slahi at a gathering in Mauritania in November 2001, where he gets picked up by the U.S. government in the middle of the night, promising his mother he would be right back. Instead, his family had no idea where he was for years; until they found out in 2005 that he was being held in Guantanamo Bay.

This is when his case lands on the desk of lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster). She tries to get him out of Guantanamo (referred to as Gitmo throughout) using Habeas Corpus, since he’s never been charged with anything. On the other side is military lawyer Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) for the prosecution who seeks out the death penalty.

Tahar Rahim is the best aspect of the film, as the likability he brings to the role is reminiscent of the real-life Slahi; he has such a light about him. It’s crushing watching what he had to go through and very moving as we see him fight to be released. This is all because he’s guilty by his associations.

Throughout the film, which is directed by Kevin Macdonald from a script by Michael Bronner, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani, the pacing is driven by Slahi as the film constantly goes through flashbacks of how he got here and what he’s been put through, specifically sequences of his torture that is horrifying and difficult to watch. It all feels raw.

Sometimes when there are constant flashbacks throughout the narrative it can either hurt a film’s flow or feel confusing; so one of the best devices used in this film is Kevin Macdonald’s choice to shoot the flashback scenes concerning Slahi in a different aspect ratio from the rest of the film.

The balance of hard-to-watch flashbacks and nice flashbacks is key, too, as the most human moments come in scenes where Slahi talks to another Gitmo prisoner he calls “Marseille” because he’s from there. They are unseen by each other and only know each other by their voices. One great moment has Marseille sound upset after getting a letter from his wife. “It’s just a letter… not my wife,” he says.

On Slahi’s side, Tahar Rahim showcases some of his best acting here where he hangs onto the fence and swings, pretending to be hearing the waves from a sea. It’s filmed so beautifully and Rahim’s energy is so great; this is a moment I’ll remember from this film.

Mauritanian, article
Jodie Foster in The Mauritanian. (Courtesy of STX Films.)

Besides the flashbacks, the film is generally driven by the legal aspect of the film trying to get him out of prison and the countless hurdles both Foster’s Nancy Hollander and her colleague Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) have to go through to help Slahi. Foster is great as Nancy Hollander just for her fight for her client and duty, and just lack of fear to represent a supposed terrorist.

Woodley, too, shines with her character’s compassion and morals, though there is a stretch in the film where she’s not there and her presence is missed. Back to their hurdles and just the way the government barely helps them; when their information request to get the summaries of Slahi’s interrogations, they receive about 30 file cases of sheets that are all completely redacted.

For the prosecution, Stuart Couch has an easier road with unredacted files but hits a roadblock trying to get his hands on the original files of Slahi’s interrogations so he can actually get witnesses in court. The roadblocks he faces acquiring these makes Stuart suspicious of what’s going on.

Of course, much of what happened with this story and the torture has overlap with Scott Z. Burns’ The Report which detailed Daniel J. Jones tirelessly researching into what happened with the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program post 9/11. That film fascinated as it gave a lot of the information of what happened as he tried to get past top secret and redacted information.

It could be argued The Mauritanian loses some oomph from that logistics overlap of what happened, but since this specifically focuses on Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s story, the two films complement each other more-so than overpower. The Mauritanian focuses on the human element of what this man has gone through; and while it probably didn’t need to be two-plus hours, it is a heartwarming and crushing tale of surviving. Tahar Rahim makes us feel every moment and the film is better for it.

Score: 75/100

This film was released in theatres on February 12, 2021 and will be on VOD in March.

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