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The Mauritanian Makes a Compelling Case of Righting Wrongs

Image courtesy of STX Films

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 stirred a national unity in America with elements that were both better and worse. The good has been the lionization of first responders and brotherhoods of support to help those affected in moments of tragedy. The bad has been a subculture of xenophobia bordering in jingoism against Muslim citizens and nations. That cross-section of Americans would rid the world of a religious group different from them if they could, even though 99% of who they target aren’t part of the problem. Not only would that group move heaven and Earth to do so, they would actively cheer for such harm and removal. 

The Mauritanian presents a compelling case in the opposite direction to all those oorah roars. Shedding cinematic light on a staunch case of injustice tangential to those fateful 2001 events, this film has the unenviable task of proving its story’s importance in spite of the egregious systemic flaws it chronicles and exposes. You don’t have to go as far back as slavery or colonization in national history to know how most triumphantly-inflated Americans don’t want their noses rubbed in their heinous mistakes. The treatment of Mohamedou Ould Salahi is one of them.

Nancy and Teri sift through boxes of documents.
Image courtesy of STX Films

Played by A Prophet Cesar Award winner Tahar Rahim, he is one foreigner from the titular coastal West African country who would come to spend over fourteen years in Guantanamo Bay’s military prison. Accusations stemming from previous organizing and recruiting activities with al-Qaeda led to Mohamedou to be held under 2001’s Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists edict beginning in 2002. No charges were filed and it would be three years before a lawyer would find his case. For the film, that defense attorney is Nancy Hollander, played by the headlining and ever-stern Jodie Foster, and followed closely by Shailene Woodley’s malleable associate Teri Duncan.

Clouded with suspicion and viewed with disdain, Hollander is angling for a plea of habeas corpus. For those light on their legal jargon, she is contesting that Prisoner 760’s detention is invalid without a trial or charges. In true classic one-liner fashion, Hollander stands tall on the fact that “everyone deserves a defense.” Countering her is Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, representing the country seeking the death penalty for Salahi’s suspected involvements with the 9/11 hijackers.

Lt. Col. Couch reads a document at a desk
Image courtesy of STX Films

What both lawyers discover are boxes of undated and redacted reports that do not substantiate either case. Hollander and Duncan act as allies visiting Mohamedou in Cuba and encourage him to share his experiences in letters, which would go on to become the memoir Guantanamo Diary. Meanwhile, Couch pressures a brass buddy (Shazam’s Zachary Levi) to release full transcripts instead of summaries of Salahi’s interrogation sessions. What they (and we) learn is not pretty, and downright evil.

The legality of Salahi’s detainment is one thing, but his treatment is another. The “enhanced interrogation methods” authorized by the Bush administration were heinous and immoral. The true depths of the malice inflicted on Salahi, lifted from his personal accounts and distilled into the screenplay from journalist Michael Bronner and the future Black Adam team of Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani, are recreated on Rahim in harrowing fashion. The revelation of those salacious details to our two attorneys is intelligently and suspensefully intercut together by editor Justine Wright (Locke) in a dynamite peak of drama.

Nancy stands in a doorway
Image courtesy of STX Films

This true-to-life torture porn in The Mauritanian, shot by Steve Jobs cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler and removed from the fictional horror trappings of its usual definition, hammers a thousand points home. Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) is sturdy and unshy about their depictions. That stiffness is likely also the check-out point for many viewers with those aforementioned delicate noses or puffed chests of patriotism. Too many of the “I don’t care” crowd may outnumber the “how could you” side. They would be missing the larger point because The Mauritanian is a place where folks deserve such uncomfortable reflection.

The best way to right a wrong is the true challenge. The story of Salahi and that of his attorneys is about defending the rule of law. The true aim should be to go about prosecution the right way and with properly gathered and corroborated evidence, no matter how much one hates who is present or what happened. The Constitution was written to organize and steer the nation away from being or becoming unchecked heathens and savages. The so-called “enhanced” methods are too much and too far. They’re war crimes and denouncing them entirely with accountability remains unfulfilled in many ways years later.

Through all of this true story of Mohamadou Ould Salahi in The Mauritanian, it’s not weak sympathy to lament or demand the right way to prosecute. Read the man’s letters again. Furthermore, reread the maniacal menu of actions that defined those enhanced techniques. The empathy called for here in this film reaches for decency and dignity because the alternatives are reprehensible. Besting the award-winning headliners above him, Tahar Rahim delivers a potent performance to elicit those goals. The Mauritanian may be hard to root for, but the real man is not. This film grants a formal place for his story to be told.

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Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based and Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing on his website "Every Movie Has a Lesson," our offshoot of Horror Obsessive, and also on Medium.com publications. As a school educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a member of the nationally-recognized Online Film Critics Society.

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