The Mauritanian (2021)
The Mauritanian (2021)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 9 min.

Release Date: February 19th, 2021 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Kevin Macdonald Actors: Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zachary Levi, Langley Kirkwood, David Fynn, Matthew Marsh

 


 

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wo months after the events of 9/11, in the republic of Mauritania in West Africa, Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim) returns for a wedding, having been in Germany to study. As the celebration gets underway, the authorities arrive, insisting that Slahi come with them to discuss his cousin Mahfouz and anything he might know about the far-reaching terrorist attack that has the Americans in an uproar. As he departs, Mohamedou comforts his mother, suggesting that he’ll be back in no time at all.

By February 2005, in New Mexico, high-profile lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) learns about Slahi, who not only failed to come back the night that he followed the Mauritanian police, but also vanished completely thereafter. His family hasn’t heard from him, and it’s rumored that he ended up in Guantanamo Bay, accused of being the head recruiter for 9/11. Although Nancy’s firm is reluctant to look into the situation at first, it’s not long before she’s on a plane to interview Mohamedou, accompanied only by coworker and translator Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), who agrees to go along for the “free trip to Cuba.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. government tasks decorated naval aviator Colonel Stu Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) to lead the prosecution against Slahi – and they’re framing the case as the first one to seek the death penalty. “If we miss something, this guy goes home.” And so the stage is set for a legal battle involving revelations of inhumane treatment – such as Slahi’s imprisonment for three years without being charged, accompanied by nonstop torture – as well as clearance issues, procedural hurdles, discrepancies with attorney-client privilege, and plenty of abuses of power. And it’s all based on a true story.

Although the setup is fairly typical, using music cues to generate suspense as forbidding locations are revealed or prisoners are manhandled, while flashbacks to detention and interrogations (and, eventually, the infamous Gitmo tortures) fill in gaps as documents are scrutinized and written testimony is read in secure facilities, the presentation is nonetheless engaging. It’s not exactly a nail-biter, but the information is consequential and the pacing doles out the unknowns with appropriate consistency. Unfortunately, in an attempt to humanize Slahi – an act that is far from necessary, considering he’s so obviously the protagonist, and surely can’t be guilty of the crimes he’s accused of (or else this tale wouldn’t be movie material) – the timeline jumps around, oftentimes detailing trivial interactions and conversations that don’t move the story forward (particularly when it comes to familial memories from the ’80s).

“What’s been done here is reprehensible.” Far more potent is the considerable collection of governmental contradictions, military corruption, bureaucratic red tape, excessive redactions, counterproductive rushes in legal practices, restrictive secrecies in the gathering of data, and chasmal conspiracies (followed, finally, by hallucinogenic sequences of “advanced interrogation techniques”). Much of this is reminiscent of 2019’s “The Report,” though there are a few new scenarios that briefly mirror major pieces from “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Either way, the storytelling techniques grow more and more routine, even if they’re visually striking. Thankfully, it’s not the specifics of this biographical yarn that stand out, especially considering that comparable ones have been told before, very recently. Instead, it’s Jodie Foster’s performance that breathes life into the picture; she’s exceptionally authentic, emotional, and powerful, making the most of every line of dialogue. Through her, the audience can sympathize more greatly with Slahi, even though Rahim’s turn is also outstanding by itself. Toward the end, as a court date looms (8 years into an uncharged detainment – the final statistics are even more jaw-dropping), “The Mauritanian” presents some horrifyingly compelling imagery and a couple of extraordinary scenes, but its parts are clearly better than the whole.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10