“The Mauritanian” – It’s difficult to believe, but the September 11 tragedy is almost 20 years old, and indeed, the lasting impact of losing 3,000 human beings on American soil during that horrible day will never fade. The United States has been changed forever, not unlike how The Civil War, The Pearl Harbor attack, and JFK’s assassination altered the country’s optimistic trajectory. Yes, I believe that the U.S. is still a hopeful place, but certainly, 9/11 wounded the U.S.A.’s psyche and removed chunks of our collective soul.
Its aftermath cost American blood and treasure during the Iraq War and the Afghanistan occupation, but while attempting to locate the masterminds behind the attacks and other terrorists, the U.S. also lost more of its soul through enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs). These EITs included waterboarding, sleep deprivation, assault, and sexual violence at black operation sites. In addition, The Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp became notorious for imprisoning suspected connected persons of interest without due process, which violates one of the key pillars of our democracy.
In 2019, Scott Z. Burns’ “The Report” followed U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein staffer Daniel J. Jones’ (Adam Driver) herculean, historic efforts to uncover the CIA’s aforementioned EITs. Jones produced a 6,700-page report that documents their ugly, un-American moments, and the film dives into the intricate details of his discoveries and flashes back to several torturous torture scenes that visually express the horrors captured in the voluminous paperwork.
Kevin Macdonald’s “The Mauritanian” might be a worthy companion piece to Burns’ movie because this film follows one man’s story, a person who lived through the broken system of inhumane cruelty and flagrant disregard for legal rights. Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim) – from Mauritania (in North Africa) – began his painful journey in November 2001. Local authorities detain Mohamedou – through American wishes – because his cousin called him from Osama Bin Laden’s phone. No matter what they discussed, this particular conversation proves to be extraordinarily costly.
Guilt by association.
The U.S. imprisoned Mohamedou in Guantanamo Bay, but Albuquerque attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) picks up his case via pro bono in 2005. She looks to free him and brings along her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) to help with the heavy legal-lifting. Meanwhile, U.S. military lawyer Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) stands in opposition, as he and his superiors seek the death penalty. The stakes couldn’t be higher in this grim bureaucratic maze that’s pitted with more roadblocks than on NYC streets during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Macdonald and three screenwriters walk a balancing act by portraying Nancy’s, Stuart’s, and Mohamedou’s journeys equally over the film’s long 129-minute runtime. Nancy and Stuart get plenty of screen time discovering Mohamedou’s winding travels of abuse and incarceration. The correctional officers and interrogators (who can be mistaken for mercenaries) have zero regard for his welfare, because during this dark period in our history, gaining information through any sordid means was paramount.
Forget the cold, hard truth that extracting intel through emotional and physical carnage is a fruitless exercise, like beating a dog until it solves quadratic equations.
The attorneys – from both sides – attempt to uncover the truth, not only the reasons for Mohamedou’s arrest but the painful years after his initial capture. Those previously mentioned roadblocks take the form of thousands of manual redactions, so the government stymied paper trails through the abundant use of black Sharpies. Although we don’t get much of Hollander’s and Couch’s backstories, Foster and Cumberbatch deliver their characters’ emotional clarities. Both masterclass actors offer memorable on-screen presences through Hollander’s tenacity and Couch’s focused, southern persona.
“The Mauritanian” is more of a heavy morality tale than a legal one, and although one can anticipate Hollander’s altruistic, human reactions, Couch’s ultimate path is a question. For Macdonald, the trial is less critical than presenting the horrific retaliatory stances of those in power, and he lays out their previously closed books on the table. Although the audience receives these messages – in loud, clear, and visceral fashions – we, unfortunately, get less of a sense of Mohamedou as a person.
He suffers, struggles, and attempts to maintain his sanity, but his personal hopes and feelings, outside of his current predicament, are infrequently reflected on-screen, or not presented as often as I’d prefer. It’s not an issue with Rahim’s performance. He’s awfully convincing here, but there are only so many minutes in a movie, I suppose. It’s a missed opportunity, but all in all, “The Mauritanian” gets its points across…the brutal, ugly, and extraordinary truths.
⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Image and trailer credits: STX Films