Film Review: ‘The Mauritanian’ a quietly powerful biography

FILM REVIEW: 'The Mauritanian' - Tahar Rahim

The Mauritanian

4 out of 5 stars – ‘Highly Recommended’
Directed by Kevin McDonald
Written by Michael Bronner, Rory Haines, Sohrab Noshirvani, Michael Bronner
Based on the Book “Guantánamo Diary” by Mohamedou Ould Slahi and Larry Siems
Starring Tahar Rahim, Nouhe Hamady Bari, Saadna Hamoud
2021 | R | 2h 9min
Streaming: Google Play, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Vudu, YouTube

Review by Jeanne Powell

During winter freezes here and stormy protest marches around the globe, the month of February 2021 wore a sour face for many. So you may have missed a riveting film released that month, starring Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch.

The Mauritanian is a legal/spy thriller based on the best-selling memoir, Guantanamo Diary, by Mohamedou Ould Slahi. Slahi was detained by the U.S. military and transferred to a prison maintained in Cuba, commonly known as Gitmo. Here he languished for more than six years before human rights attorney Nancy Hollander agreed to meet him and represent him.

In an award-winning performance, Jodie Foster, as a defense attorney for a foreign suspect, brings to life the conflicts dominating American consciousness after the 2011 surprise attack on the twin towers in New York. Because of the politics of the administration in power, multiple nations were targeted in a poorly planned dragnet search for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and individuals who planned the 2011 attack. No WMDs ever were found. Bin Laden was executed in his home in Pakistan, far from the nations we targeted.

Arrested in Senegal on his way home from school in Germany, Slahi was transferred first to Mauritania and then to Guantanamo. No charges ever were filed. Years of torture followed, for him and other political prisoners. Some committed suicide. Any evidence was labeled “top secret” and was unavailable even to Slahi’s attorneys.

He managed to survive the torture with his mind intact, never giving up hope.

Several factors made Slahi’s situation memorable. He managed to survive the torture with his mind intact, never giving up hope. A formidable defense attorney finally took his case. The military prosecutor was an ethical man — Stuart Couch played by Benedict Cumberbatch — who demanded that the Pentagon unseal evidence it said it possessed. Once it became clear there was no evidence, federal courts decided in Slahi’s favor.

Yet another eight years would pass before he finally was allowed to return to his overjoyed family in Mauritania. Tahar Rahim delivers a multi-layered performance as the prisoner waiting for a day of release which never seemed to arrive.

Jodie Foster in ‘The Mauritanian’.

Directed by Kevin Macdonald, this film is a study of character, who a person is or becomes when faced with an impossible situation. At one point Nancy Hollander’s assistant loses faith in Slahi’s innocence and Hollander bans her from the case. The contrast between military prosecutor Stuart Couch and the stone-faced generals he confronts when asking for evidence is very clear; one side seeks the truth and the other side follows orders. For his diligence, attorney Stuart Couch is forced to leave the prosecution team he had been leading. The understandable grief of a 9-11 widow asking for vengeance on one side, and the loving face of a mother in Mauritania patiently waiting for her son to come home on the other side of the world. The mother in Mauritania dies before her son is exonerated and released.

In a January 2021 interview, when asked about the remarkable attorney she portrayed in The Mauritanian and Nancy Hollander’s commitment to giving fair representation to all who are accused, Jody Foster said:

“And honestly, the real terrorists — the toughest terrorists — weren’t even in Guantanamo, they were being held in black sites, many of them we have no idea about. Guantanamo detainees — maybe 85% of them — were just people who had been turned in by people in their communities who had responded to an ad from the U.S. government that said, ‘Hey, if you suspect anyone of terrorism, call this number.’ That’s it, that’s all they had.”

Filming was done in South Africa, and the crew did not think Slahi would ever get out of Mauritania to come to the set. He could not even get a visa to visit Germany to see his son and wife there. Somehow the South African government relented and said, ok, Slahi, you can visit the movie set. Foster remembers the reunion between attorney Nancy Hollander and her client Mohamedou Slahi; they were like old friends, chatting and sight-seeing in South Africa.

The Mauritanian is a quietly powerful film biography, almost documentary-like, interested only in telling what actually happened. The courage of the defense attorney and of the military prosecutor made all the difference here.

If just one person speaks up, stands up, the whole world may change…

Jeanne is a published poet and essayist. She holds degrees from Wayne State University and the University of San Francisco. Jeanne has taught in the CS, UB and OLLI programs at universities in the City. Her books in print include MY OWN SILENCE and WORD DANCING from Taurean Horn Press.
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