Over the past two decades or so, many events have shaken the belief that the United States has the world’s moral high ground. When it comes to how we treat prisoners, the value we place in the Constitution, and the concept that we always honorable, that mindset has taken many a hit. Now, right as faith in our ideals is shaken again, comes along The Mauritanian, a true life drama and legal thriller that shines a light on another injustice. At the same time, while this could be a downer and the last thing audiences want to see, it’s so well done, full of righteous anger and an ability to call folks to action, that it instead demands to be seen.
The Mauritanian is going to make you angry. It’s also likely to lead you to want to make a difference. That’s what sets this one apart from so many 9/11 adjacent films. This is a far cry from Rendition, for example. Whereas movies from that era just never connected, this one certainly does. Truly, that’s what helps this flick to rise above and work as well as it does.
On the surface, this may seem like something fairly similar to The Report from back in 2019. Now, it isn’t, but there are comparisons that make sense. The time period overlaps somewhat, there are scenes of our protagonists reading classified documents, and supposedly friendly government officials creating roadblocks. However, this is a warmer film, as well as, overall, a more accessible one.
A true story, the film depicts Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim) and his long fight for justice. Detained by the U.S. government in his home country, purportedly in connection to September 11th, he’s eventually sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he languishes. That is, until defense attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) take up his case. Initially, they’re just there to make sure his civil rights are upheld, but the more they learn, the more they wonder why the government has him.
As Slahi waits, and eventually goes under “enhanced interrogation” in the search for answers, Nancy looks for actual evidence against him. At the same time, military prosecutor, Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) is preparing his case. Stuart is determined to do this by the book, and as he hits similar stonewalls to what Nancy and Teri are encountering, his suspicions arise as well. They’re each dealing with a government that wants to just keep or convict Slahi, but a life hangs in the balance. The end result, though somewhat predictable, still contains elements that will utterly shock you.
The quartet of Benedict Cumberbatch, Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim, and Shailene Woodley are terrific. Rahim especially is wonderful, giving a heartbreaking role the sort of dignity and heart that makes this a special experience. Without question, he’s the soul of this picture. Also providing heart is Woodley, who is as close as we get to an audience surrogate. She’s not showy here, but she’s smart, witty, and you feel at ease when she’s on the screen. Cumberbatch could have wound up with a soulless villain part, but he, along with the script, never goes in that direction. He elevates the loyal opposition and makes you root for him to see the light. Then, there’s Foster. Given a juicy role like this, she turns in strong work that’s hardly flashy, but always provides a moral compass. Together, they provide the marrow of this flick. Supporting players like Zachary Levi are fine, but these four are truly what it’s about here.
Director Kevin Macdonald puts forth some of his best work here. Armed with a solid screenplay from Michael Bronner, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani, Macdonald makes The Mauritanian a portrait of quiet dignity. The way they depict Slahi especially is noteworthy. He’s human and realistic, flaws and all. Especially when Macdonald starts the torture section of the story, you’re properly invested. The second half of the film is where things really get locked in, so you do have to deal with some iffy pacing, but it’s a rather small issue, overall.
The Mauritanian may end up falling through the awards season cracks, but it doesn’t deserve to. Then again, it may not, given the subject matter that Academy voters gravitate towards. Plus, the quality is there. This is a really good movie, one with impeccable acting, as well as something important to say. Hopefully audiences are prepared to listen. If so, this could be one of the late breaking Oscar players for 2021. Stay tuned.