The titular character in The Mauritanian is a man named Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahir Rahim), who was arrested in the chaos after 9/11 as a terrorist, and tossed into the United States’ infamous offshore Guantánamo prison. He, like hundreds of other international accused criminals, are left there to rot not just without trial, but without being formally charged with a crime. The prison, sitting on a tropical beach in Cuba, is super-controversial and accused of human rights violations. But that is a whole extra in-depth documentary series in itself.
Slahi is just one man, surprisingly jovial, charming, and fluent in several languages. An attorney, Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) takes an interest in his case, simply for the rule of law that even the most-likely guilty have the right to representation. On the other side, military attorney Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) is assigned as the prosecutor, a role he gladly accepts, if only for his friend that died in one of the planes that crashed on 9/11. As the two lawyers struggle to get information from their own government about the case, and most importantly, Slahi’s confession to his involvement in the terrorist attacks, the truth becomes a lot more murky.
Tahir Rahim is easily the best thing about this film. I previously saw him in the 9/11-themed mini-series The Looming Tower where he played an Arabic-speaking FBI agent, and he was excellent. Slahi was a good writer, and his notes that he wrote in prison ended up becoming a best-selling memoir Guantánamo Diary. His perspective is the most interesting thing about the movie, whether it is his moments chatting with another prisoner through a mesh fence during exercise time, or his ability to make friends with some of his captors, despite their role as jailers, and sometimes torturers.
Meanwhile, the lawyers are left doing cinematic lawyerly things like sit in rooms with boxes and boxes and files, flip through papers that are almost entirely redacted in black, and storm out of meetings. Cumberbatch is completely wasted in the role, with his stiff, neat, military bearing and Southern twang making him seem like he took someone else’s throwaway role. Jodie Foster at least does a lot better. With her silver hair and harsh red lipstick, she is having a blast in her chewiest role in years. She even gets to drop the F-bomb. Oh, did I mention Shailene Woodley is in the film, playing co-defense? Yeah, why bother. It’s a minor supporting role. Regardless of the real person’s involvement in the real-life case, the poor woman could have been cut from the film, no harm done.
As the film builds toward its final act where it gets heavy on Slahi’s flashbacks, you are reminded that director Kevin Macdonald is best known for The Last King of Scotland, which also featured unbearable torture. In hindsight of the coverups following the treatment of prisoners after 9/11, it is not a shocking reveal that Slahi was tortured in order to confess. It’s more shocking that the prison in Guantánamo Bay is still open. The way that “justice” was meted out after 9/11 was a mess, no matter the (justifiable) desire that someone needed to pay. Hopefully, getting Slahi’s story to a wider audience will humanize those unjustly accused.