“The Mauritanian” – The survivor [MOVIE REVIEW]

Tahar Rahim as Mohamedou Ould Slahi in “The Mauritanian.” Photo courtesy of STX Films.

“The Mauritanian,” based partially on Guantánamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, is to be seen, felt, and experienced. The true story about the courageously honest actions of two lawyers on opposite sides of the fence to deliver a fair verdict in the case of Slahi, accused of being a mastermind of 9/11, challenges you to find your moral compass. Kevin MacDonald, the director of award winning documentaries as well as the excellent “The Last King of Scotland,”, is just the person to take you on that journey.

Slahi, a young man from Mauritania (a North African country bordering Algeria) has spent his youth and young adulthood in Germany on scholarship. But instead of finishing his studies to be an engineer, he is arrested during a family celebration and spirited out of the country. In November of 2001, U.S. intelligence picked up a call from Bin Laden’s cell phone that was placed to Slahi from his cousin, a relative with questionable allegiances. This was all they needed for their initial suspicion; more evidence will eventually surface. That the evidence is manufactured from unreliable sources is not relevant. Thus begins Slahi’s journey to Hell.

In 2005, Nancy Hollander, an attorney in Albuquerque, New Mexico is approached by a colleague for a “simple” favor. He was asked to confirm the location of a young man, a suspected terrorist, who disappeared in 2001. Der Spiegel, the respected German newspaper, has written that the young man is being held in Guantanamo. He asks Nancy to make a call and confirm this as she has the kind of government clearance necessary. When, after making the call, she is led on a not so merry chase, she decides to investigate further. To her it is a clear case of “Habeus Corpus.” Mohamedou Slahi has never been officially charged with a crime or brought before a judge in order to determine if there are lawful grounds to detain him. Thus begins Hollander’s journey to Hell.

Contemporaneously, the U.S. government has decided that it is time to execute Slahi for his role in 9/11 and a top military lawyer is chosen for the task, Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Couch. He is the perfect choice, ripe to revenge the death of a good friend and colleague, a pilot in one of the hijacked planes. Thus begins Couch’s journey to Hell.

Hollander makes several trips to Guantanamo to interview Slahi and decides upon a course of action. He will sue the U.S. government, Donald Rumsfeld, and George W. Bush. Her intent is to force them into revealing the hand that has been dealt against Slahi. This, she explains to her young assistant Teri Duncan is not about guilt or innocence, only about whether there were legal grounds to detain him.

The bulk of this film is played against a backdrop of legal research and the incredible roadblocks the government put up to prevent Hollander from mounting a defense. But they also put up roadblocks to prevent Couch from knowing the whole story behind this arrest. As both Hollander and Couch try to feel their way through the smoke and mirrors, horrific details begin to emerge. From the written pages they read in cloistered government conference rooms, to the autobiographical record of Slahi’s treatment, what would later become Guantanamo Diary,” evidence of rendition emerges. Slahi has been subjected to horrific torture and humiliation. It is a tribute to MacDonald that he is able to portray these acts effectively, visually, and emotionally.

The question that should emerge is how, in a civilized society, could we have allowed this to happen. Certainly the last several years gives some insight into that answer, but not enough. Psychologists have long been saying that torture does not yield the truth, only the “truths” you imagine you want to hear. Under the kind of duress suffered by Slahi (and many others), his alleged confessions were what the interrogators wanted to hear to the extent that they would not stop until they got what they wanted to be the truth, their truth.

The “special measures” authorized by Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, are outlawed by the Geneva Convention, one of the reasons they were carried out secretly in counties favoring such methods. When discussing the “camp” at Guantanamo, Hollander says to Couch, “It’s not the detainees they were trying to keep out of the courts, it’s the jailers.”

Tahar Rahim as Mohamedou Ould Slahi and Jody Foster as Nancy Hollander in “The Mauritanian.” Photo courtesy of STX Films.

That the New York Times reviewer dismissed the film with her feeling that she was “Trapped for the most part in featureless rooms, a stellar cast — including Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch and Shailene Woodley — deliver dull speeches and sift through redacted documents, brows furrowed and lips compressed.” And described the scenes of abuse as having been “rendered all too familiar” by previous films and television shows, shows a superficial understanding of what the filmmakers were trying to do. For me, their sifting through the redacted documents, coupled with parallel visual portrayals of what they are reading, is riveting. This is, at the base, a legal thriller. Will the lawyers find a smoking gun; will they be able to plead their case to an impartial judge? It’s all in those pages and if those brows are furrowed and the lips compressed, it is a wordless indication of the violation, the subversion of Constitutional law. As much as many, if not most of us believe “the end justifies the means,” it is not what our sorely tried Democratic system of government is based on.

For the most part, the acting is superb. Those furrowed brows of Jodie Foster as Nancy Hollander tell you everything you need to know about her character and why she fights so hard for cases that others wouldn’t touch. Foster is at her best when pragmatic. She imbues sympathy without sentimentality. Benedict Cumberbatch, Couch, is able to impart stalwart courage without an emotional undercurrent. Effectively portraying a Christian “God and Country” boy scout is no mean feat. It is only Shailene Woodley as Foster’s assistant lawyer Teri Duncan who misses the mark. Veering from overly sympathetic when she believes her client is innocent to cold when she is convinced he isn’t, Woodley is, unfortunately, quite wooden.

The star of this piece, and rightly so, is Tahar Rahim, a French actor of Algerian descent. MacDonald never considered anyone but Rahim for the role of Slahi and he was spot on. His range is astonishing and he uses it all in this film as he takes you on his character’s terrifying roller coaster of emotions. There is not enough praise that can be given to this performance and he will certainly be one of the front runners when Oscar nominations are handed out.

This is a must-see film. MacDonald and his writers, M.B. Traven, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani have given us something to think about and reflect on. A special mention should be made of the Production Designer Michael Carlin and Cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler. Their depiction of Guantanamo (created in South Africa) and the low light filming that increased the tension are definitely award worthy.

Now playing at AMC virtual theaters. Coming March 2 to On Demand.



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Written by: Neely Swanson

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