The Plot: Shortly after the tragic events of 9/11, the War On Terror began and the US Government needed suspects. Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim) was taken from his home in Mauritania in Northwest Africa and eventually found himself under sustained detention in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Accused of recruiting key players in the attacks like Mohamed Atta, Mohamedou was repeatedly interrogated. He stuck to his story that he had no involvement despite associations with Al Qaeda. Enter American lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster), who steadfastly believes in the Constitution and the right to a fair hearing. The US Government wants the death penalty. Along with her associate Teri (Shailene Woodley), Nancy sets out to prove that the US Government has no evidence and is detaining Momamedou without charge…
The Verdict: Trust Kevin Macdonald to find something meaty and provocative for audiences to grapple with. The acclaimed Scottish director has flitted back and forth between gripping documentaries, dramatisation of true stories and the occasional fictional film. He’s most at home searching for the truth, clouded by a complex web of political, military and legal procedures. His latest film The Mauritanian delves into the murky world of post-9/11 detainment of suspects in Guantanamo Bay. It relates the true story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s long battle for freedom, as viewed through his weary eyes and that of his lawyer Nancy. The result is a stirring legal drama that pushes buttons about what constitutes a crime and how the rules of the law can be side-stepped to violate a suspect’s rights to due process.
The Mauritanian isn’t quite your typical legal drama though. Apart from one well-positioned, impassioned speech, Macdonald otherwise forgoes courtroom theatrics and legal battles won or lost. Instead, he focuses on the immense physical and mental toll of lengthy detainment on Mohamedou. Cut off from the outside world, he knows only what the Americans soldiers tell him – a culture that he is unfamiliar with. As the years pass, the toll becomes heavier and the approach towards interrogation darker, with Macdonald gently pushing the audience further towards sympathy for his subject. Guilt or innocence is not the real issue in this thought-provoking film. As Nancy puts it at one point, she’s defending the rule of the law. It’s also about the Constitution and the rights that Americans hold to be true, which should have further resonance given the recent political turmoil in Capitol Hill.
Tahar Rahim was initially reluctant to take on the role of Mohamedou. The talented French star of A Prophet has made careful choices in his career and obviously didn’t want to be typecast as another Muslim bad guy. However, he brings his trademark intensity along with humanity to the role, burning his way through the screen in a terrific but unshowy Oscar-worthy performance. There are occasional time jumps as the story moves through 15 years of Mohamedou’s life, but the mileage is seamlessly visible on Rahim’s face throughout. He’s ably supported by a powerhouse Jodie Foster, who also gets to share screentime with prosecution lawyer Stu (Benedict Cumberbatch). Macdonald flips expectations again, making the two lawyers less adversaries and more two clever people at different ends of the legal system.
There’s an anticlimax at the end, but maybe that’s Macdonald’s point. The road to freedom is pitted with trapdoors and surprises, but when the end does come it concludes a satisfying journey for these real-life characters. What sticks the most though is Mohamedou’s unbreakable spirit, something which both Rahim and Macdonald have skillfully captured on film in three dimensions. The Mauritanian makes for a powerful and sturdy indictment of shady US Government tactics in defiance and contradiction of its own laws. Guilty as charged for being a worthy film.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
The Mauritanian (UK / USA / TBC / 129 mins)
In short: Powerful indictment
Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Starring Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zachary Levi.