THE MAURITANIAN movie poster | | ©2020 STX Films

THE MAURITANIAN movie poster | ©2020 STX Films

Rating: R
Stars: Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch, Shailene Woodley
Writers: M.B. Traven and Rory Haines & Sohrab Noshrvani, screen story by M.B. Traven, based on the book GUANTANAMO DIARY by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, edited by Larry Siems
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Distributor: STX Films
Release Date: February 12, 2021

THE MAURITANIAN is based on Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s nonfiction book GUANTANAMO DIARY (edited by Larry Siems, as is noted in the credits), which details his decade-plus of detention in that facility. The film, directed by Kevin Macdonald from a screenplay by M.B. Traven and Rory Haines & Sohrab Noshrvani, screen story by Traven, is a sober look at Slahi’s detention, as well as the relentless efforts of defense attorney Nancy Hollander to win his freedom.

Slahi, played in THE MAURITANIAN by Tahar Rahim, grows up in rural Mauritania with his family. While his mother misses him, Slahi’s kin are bursting with pride when he wins a scholarship to a German university. In November, 2001, Slahi comes home for a relative’s wedding. He is asked to answer some questions by the authorities.

In 2005, lawyer Hollander (played by Jodie Foster) hears about Slahi, who has been detained without charges in Guantanamo for years. Hollander doesn’t care about Slahi’s guilt or innocence so much as the fact that the detention is itself unlawful. She is a crusader who does not want the U.S. government to violate its own rules.

U.S. Marine Lt. Colonel Stuart Crouch (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is assigned to present the government’s case against Slahi. Due to testimony from another detainee, who spent a night in the German house where Slahi lived, plus a call from a cousin on Osama bin Laden’s satellite phone, Slahi is believed to be one of the architects of 9/11. Crouch, who lost a close friend in the attacks, is determined to see Slahi get the death penalty.

And then Hollander and Crouch each try to research the case, and find out some profoundly disturbing details.

THE MAURITANIAN is scrupulous about letting the audience decide whether or not Slahi did anything criminal. The film does make a strong case against torture as a means of obtaining truthful statements. Anyone familiar with news coverage of CIA interrogations of terror suspects won’t be surprised by much of what is done to Slahi. Most viewers, familiar or not, will be horrified by the visceral abuse.

A less emotional but more startling aspect of THE MAURITANIAN is how government secrecy manages to hamper not only the defense, but also the prosecution. Crouch is frustrated that lack of information may result in Slahi walking free on a technicality, surely not the result desired by the White House administration.

Rahim provides the film with a vulnerable yet resilient focal point. Foster has steely intelligence and determination as Hollander. Cumberbatch, employing an American Southern accent, conveys rectitude as Couch. Shailene Woodley brings a gentle, humane quality to Hollander’s associate, Teri Duncan.

Torture and technical details aside, THE MAURITANIAN is an informative but familiar-feeling legal drama. Its rhythms and methods are what we expect, in a good way. The film effectively makes its points. It’s also intriguing enough to make us grateful for the postscripts that explain what happened to all the major personnel.

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