In 2016, Mohamedou Ould Salahi was released from Guantanamo Bay Prison after being held for 12 years on suspicion that he was involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but without having any actual charges filed against him. Now, Salahi’s story is brought to life in director Kevin Macdonald’s film “The Mauritanian,” based on Salahi’s memoir Guantanamo Diary.
And “The Mauritanian” largely works because it concentrates most of the film’s focus on Salahi, not the white Americans working to either free him or incarcerate him—a trap that similar movies have fallen into and that this one easily could have as well. The film is set over a number of years, starting after Salahi’s first arrest by the U.S. government in 2002. Stuck in Guantanamo with little hope of getting out, Salahi turns to defense attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley). Meanwhile, military prosecutor Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), who lost friends in the attacks, is set on making sure Salahi never gets out—until he, along with Hollander, begin uncovering information that suggests that any confessions Salahi made were the result of torture.
And Salahi was not the only man arrested on similar suspicions. “The Mauritanian” is a damning indictment of both the practices at Guantanamo Bay, and the attitude that many Americans held following the 9/11 attacks, namely a great feeling of prejudice toward individuals from the Middle East. Throughout the film, we see Hollander and Duncan face a great deal of criticism from the American public and the government for attempting to make sure Salahi has a fair trial. The story explores how the personal feelings of some individuals can cloud their judgement and impede justice. “The Mauritanian,” while based on a true story, hits many predictable beats, such as its too-favorable redemption arc for Couch, who comes to terms with the unconscionable actions of the U.S. government, despite his personal bias. The film tries to end on an inspiring note of victory typical of courtroom dramas, but Macdonald makes it jarringly clear that victory was not that swift or easy. And while the threads following Hollander and Couch feeling like they go through the usual motions of a political thriller slash court drama, the scenes following Salahi (who is played by Tahar Rahim), take on a different tone. We find him in moments of quiet beauty even while he is imprisoned, connecting with his fellow prisoners even though he cannot see them. This is contrasted by a brutal torture montage later in the film that is almost experimental in nature; blaring music, flashing lights, and strange faces come together in a series of quick cuts that highlight the horrific acts Salahi was subjected to.
Rahim is really wonderful as Salahi, imbuing him with a cockiness that makes his exchanges with Hollander and his guards amusing, but revealing his sadness and loneliness, particularly in regards to missing his family, when he is by himself. He makes Salahi likeable and gentle, a contrast to the way many Americans unfortunately perceived Muslims then and continue to today, but based on home videos of the real Salahi that play over the end credits, that wasn’t too hard; he appears to be a man filled with joy and a love for life, despite all the injustices he experienced. As mentioned before, the film rightly focuses primarily on him, although we get to know Hollander, Couch, and the other figures in the story just enough to understand their motives and personalities. Foster’s Hollander is tough and no non-sense, prepared to dig for the truth no matter what. Her relationship with Duncan isn’t explored too much in the film, but what we see is interesting, her younger associate losing patience as soon as she finds evidence contrary to what they are trying to prove. Cumberbatch, meanwhile, delivers a performance armed with a no non-sense attitude and a strong (and by strong I mean ridiculously over-the-top) Southern drawl. But even alongside some of the most acclaimed actors working today, Rahim outshines all of them.
Overall, “The Mauritanian” is a solid film with a clear message that places the human element of its story over politics. It leaves the viewer not with a sense of satisfaction at a victory well won, but fury that this was allowed to happen, and allowed to happen for such a long time. But it most importantly leaves us with a sense of who Mohamedou Ould Salahi is as a person: his personality, his perseverance, and the joy that he manages to get out of life now every day.
“The Mauritanian” will be released in theaters on February 19th. Runtime: 129 minutes. Rated R.
Media review screener courtesy STX Entertainment.