Two months after 9/11, Mohamedou Ould Salahi was taken prisoner, locked up in Guantanamo Bay and accused of being al Qaeda’s head recruiter. He was never charged with a crime, but spent 14 years imprisoned. Salahi wrote about his experiences in the book “Guantanamo Diary,” which is the inspiration for Kevin Macdonald’s new film “The Mauritanian.”
The movie doesn’t just stick to Salahi (played by Tahar Rahim). We follow defense attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) who, along with junior associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), take Salahi’s case: The government of the United States must produce enough evidence to justify his captivity, and Hollander will fight to achieve Salahi’s freedom which, of course, will be no easy task.
Along the way, we encounter Col. Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), a religious man who is tasked with the prosecution of Salahi. Couch was friends with a pilot of the United Flight 175 and, therefore, is looking for revenge. His objective is to send Salahi to death row. However, his moral compass is strong, and his discoveries on the crimes committed by the U.S. government will test just that.
The story is divided in two. On one side we have the fight for justice (from both Hollander and Couch) and, on the other, we learn about Salahi’s imprisonment. In order to explain his experiences and innocence, he wrote a series of letters whose contents are depicted through flashbacks. Both parts are equally compelling thanks to magnetic performances from everyone involved.
Tahar Rahim, who rose to prominence back in 2009 with “The Prophet,” steps back into the limelight with a masterful performance. Charismatic when silent and unflinchingly resilient during the toughest scenes, you never doubt his acting. His singing, smiles and little jokes are rays of sunshine. Rahim forces you to empathize with Salahi through a very humane performance.
Jodie Foster is another highlight. As a committed lawyer, her confidence jumps off the screen. She’s a pit bull, ready to bite at any moment, and her scenes alongside Rahim and Cumberbatch are electric. The latter does a tremendous job in giving depth to a character that could’ve been just a cartoon. Meanwhile, Shailene Woodley delivers a strong yet small performance as a vulnerable lawyer shaken by the magnitude of the case; her character offers a glimpse into the complex life of someone seen by some people as evil for trying to defend what the public opinion sees as undefendable.
Even though the movie lacks heart in its first half, it effectively sets up the depth in Salahi’s character and allows the legal drama to build. The script isn’t subtle, but it successfully creates both hunger for justice and a profound empathy for Salahi. And when the torture scenes hit in the second half, they do it hard; through fast editing and claustrophobic cinematography, these moments become a heartbreaking nightmare and a harrowing reminder of what a sadistic government is capable of.
“The Mauritanian” shines a light on a real story of a human rights violation that was supported by the legal system of the United States. Kevin Macdonald crafted a powerful, captivating and expertly paced film whose biggest success is showing the overflowing humanity of a man that, despite it all, refused to give up hope. And by doing so, he showed an imperialist culture exactly what it lacks.
Ricardo is a Mexico City based bilingual writer, digital animation graduate and awards season nerd. He also enjoys pro wrestling, is a Paddington fan and is the founder of the film website “La Estatuilla.”