Thursday 30 December 2021

Movie Review: The Mauritanian (2021)

A legal drama based on true events., The Mauritanian explores the plight of detainees rounded up during the war on terror, and held at Guantanamo Bay with no access to due process.

Two months after the terrorists attacks of September 11, 2001, Mohamedou Slahi (Tahar Rahim) is arrested at the behest of the United States while attending a family wedding in his home country of Mauritania. In his past he had trained with Al-Qaeda and had recently received a phone call from his cousin using Bin Laden's satellite phone. 

Slahi is held without charge at the American Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba. By 2005, Albuquerque-based lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) accepts his case and starts proceedings to force the government to reveal evidence against him. Around the same time, Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) is appointed to prosecute Slahi on charges that he was one of the main organizers and recruiters of the terrorist attacks, with the US administration seeking the death penalty. 

Hollander and her assistant Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) visit Slahi and encourage him to write his history so they can mount a defence. Meanwhile, Couch's attempts to assemble meaningful evidence is challenged by layers of governmental secrecy. Both Hollander and Couch will be startled by what their investigations will uncover.

Based on Slahi's book Guantanamo Diary and directed by Kevin Macdonald, The Mauritanian is an exquisitely constructed drama exposing a descent to ethical bankruptcy. Through the story of one man, the screenplay by M.B. Traven, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani indicts an inept administration that started with clumsy extrajudicial detention then veered to the torture tactics of tinpot regimes.

A multi-pronged approach towards shocking revelations adds narrative zest. Slahi's story unfolds through letters to Hollander from his prison cell, while Couch is independently readying his case under pressure to secure a conviction. The death penalty requires a high bar, and Couch is dogged in pursuing the necessary evidence, just as Hollander ardently believes in basic principles of justice. With flashbacks filling in Slahi's ordeal, the quests of the two lawyers merge with artistic elegance.

The film is designed to illicit fury, and succeeds through measured pacing and a commitment to rich storytelling. Macdonald strides towards the abyss of interrogatory behaviour, and by the time the torture tactics take centre stage for a harrowing ten minute sequence, the impact is amplified through character depth. 

At 129 minutes, the running time is on the longer side. A side-bar about another Guantanamo inmate originally from Marseilles could have used a trim, while all opposing viewpoints, including the pressures experienced by those authorizing torture, are absent.

Tahar Rahim finds the ambiguity within a man harbouring a chequered history, still finding balance despite the abrupt cancellation of his freedom. Jodie Foster rolls back the years to deliver a steely performance as a lawyer fiercely protective of her profession's fundamentals. 

Righteousness matters most during the severest crises. In the brutal conflict between terrorists and their pursuers, The Mauritanian humanizes the cost of inhumanity.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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