Directed by: Kevin Macdonald
Starring: Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch, Shailene Woodley
Available on Google Play, YouTube, Amazon Prime
Rated R, 129 minutes
A year ago this week, I was settling into lockdown to wait out the coronavirus, wondering how long that wait would last. A couple weeks, some predicted; judging by the early waves of the pandemic around the world, I thought the worst would be over within a few months, but likely much sooner. “It can’t happen here,” I thought, watching grim images of national lockdowns and overwhelmed hospitals in other countries. And it shouldn’t have happened here, but it did, for a year and counting, and more catastrophically than anywhere else on Earth.
Tahar Rahim and Jodie Foster star in “The Mauritanian.” (Courtesy photo)
What does this have to do with “The Mauritanian”? Not much, on the surface; Kevin Macdonald’s (“The Last King of Scotland”) tense thriller deals with an entirely different American tragedy. The true story of defense attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster, “The Silence of the Lambs”) and her legal fight on behalf of Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim, “A Prophet”), the titular Guantánamo Bay detainee accused of recruiting for al-Qaida, “The Mauritanian” is a chilling glimpse into the war on terror. The movie pulls no punches in depicting the torture committed by American agents and the despair of their victims, asking us to sympathize with someone connected, however spuriously, with the worst attack ever on U.S. soil. This is no small ask for American audiences, but the movie commits fully to a humanizing portrayal of Slahi, countering our suspicions with the sobering facts of his 14-year-long imprisonment without trial.
His story is engrossing and so is the film, which refuses to look away from its subject. Tahar Rahim, as Slahi, gives as commanding a performance as ever was committed to film, at times twitchy and evasive, other times sincere and heartbreakingly hopeful. Even when he’s alone in a bleak square of fenced-in concrete for his daily exercise, or cooped up in his frigid cell, his presence gives the movie an almost unbearable excess of life. The way he sways in a breeze or prays resolutely betrays a man at peace, despite the horrors that surround him. His torture, presented in disorienting blurs and interspersed with memories of his father herding camels in the Sahara, is almost too gruesome to watch, but he perseveres. “In Arabic, the word for free and the word for forgiveness are the same word,” he explains, by way of welcoming the court’s verdict, even though a woefully misbegotten justice system has already served him hell on earth.
This sorry ordeal is so striking right now, after a year of pandemic life and death, because, in its simple but earnest assertion that America has failed to honor its word, it feels like an exact diagnosis of what has made this last year so awful. This is the rare legal thriller where the defense and prosecution work together, sharing tips and engaging in sincere discussion of the case at hand. There’s no callous suspicion that Nancy Hollander, in defending an accused 9/11 conspirator, supports violent extremism; likewise, there’s no accusation that the prosecution is trying to sweep the government’s overreach under the rug. Rather, it’s the American government itself, monolithic and looming in the background, chronically unforthcoming with details on Slahi’s case, that plays the antagonist. The truth sets everyone else free.
“We all took an oath to defend and support the Constitution,” the lead prosecutor says in one scene. “We are miles away from that.” The line, delivered in Benedict Cumberbatch’s (“The Imitation Game”) thick approximation of a Southern accent, is clunky, one of many moments of didactic stiffness. For all the power inherent in its gripping story, “The Mauritanian” can’t help but preach. But these bald sentiments ring true; the failures of the American government in the past two decades, from the war on terror to the mismanagement of the pandemic, are so basic, so obvious, that a little preaching feels warranted. To wit, when Slahi wins his case and bellows “Freedom!” in his cell, a chyron cuts him off to explain that the Obama administration appealed the decision, keeping Slahi locked up for seven more years. “The Mauritanian” is a forceful case for an American reckoning, one that argues that we must be clear-eyed about the excesses and prejudices that we’ve allowed to control us. If we don’t, it argues, then these horrors can, and will, continue to happen here.
Danny Eisenberg grew up in Harvard and has been reviewing movies for the Harvard Press since 2010. He lives and works in Denver, Colorado.