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Review: The Mauritanian (2021)

The Mauritanian (2021)

Directed by: Kevin Macdonald

Premise: Based on true events. Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim) was arrested and held for fourteen years at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. American lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) attempts to exonerate Slahi.

What Works: The Mauritanian is primarily a legal drama and the filmmakers use the conventions of that genre to make a case against the parallel legal system that was used against alleged terrorists. Jodie Foster plays the plucky attorney who stands up to the establishment and demands integrity and justice and Tahar Rahim is cast as the defendant who has been wrongly accused of terrorism. But while The Mauritanian generally adheres to its genre, it does that genre well and the filmmakers add details that distinguish these characters and their case. One of the unusual aspects of Slahi’s story that is conveyed quite effectively is the way that the system terrorized him and how that impacted Slahi’s relationship with his attorney. Nancy Hollander, the lawyer played by Foster, had very limited interaction with her client and he had little way of knowing whether or not he could trust her especially after being tortured and isolated. Hollander’s defense of Slahi was carried out under strained and sometimes clandestine circumstances; the film makes clear that this ad-hoc legal system was not designed to get at the truth but to reach a predetermined conclusion. The psychological effect of that system is quite evident in Rahim’s performance. The Mauritanian also makes its rhetorical case through the subplot of the prosecutor, Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Couch joins the case as a true believer and as someone who lost a friend in the 9/11 terrorist attack but he gradually comes to realize the corruption at the heart of the case. This character has the most significant arc in the movie and Cumberbatch conveys the post-9/11 rage but also the disillusionment with what was done in the name of justice and revenge.  

What Doesn’t: The filmmakers are very clearly on the side of Slahi and his lawyer. At the risk of advocating false equivalence, the film might have been stronger had it more credibly entertained the rationale for the Guantanamo Bay internment program. The people who implemented these policies and carried them out were generally doing so on the belief that this was necessary to protect the country. With the exception of Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, most everyone carrying out or defending detention and torture do so with mustache-twirling glee. This choice serves a dramatic function, putting the audience on Slahi’s side, but it also flattens and simplifies the issue. 

DVD extras: Deleted scenes and featurettes.

Bottom Line: The Mauritanian is an effective legal drama that uses its story to make a point about justice and due process. The filmmakers don’t consider more complicated questions but they don’t bury their drama in exposition either. The Mauritanian embeds its agenda within an involving story with some impressive performances.

Episode: #868 (September 12, 2021)