Review: ‘The Mauritanian,’ starring Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim, Benedict Cumberbatch and Shailene Woodley

February 19, 2021

by Carla Hay

Tahar Rahim and Jodie Foster in “The Mauritanian” (Photo courtesy of STX)

“The Mauritanian”

Directed by Kevin Macdonald

Some language in Arabic, French and German with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Mauritania, Cuba, the United States, Germany and Afghanistan, the dramatic film “The Mauritanian” features a cast of white, North African, Middle Eastern and a few black characters representing people who are connected in some way to the case of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian citizen who was imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba for being a suspected terrorist.

Culture Clash: Slahi’s legal team argued that he was being wrongly imprisoned by the U.S. government, because he wasn’t given the proper due process in the court system and he wasn’t charged with a crime.

Culture Audience: “The Mauritanian” will appeal primarily to people in interested in social justice issues, especially in how Muslims were treated after the 9/11 attacks.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Zachary Levi in “The Mauritanian” (Photo courtesy of STX)

Movies like “The Mauritanian” usually don’t get made unless there’s a message of hope and inspiration at the very end. But this dramatic interpretation of a real-life story of legal injustice also exists to show the horrors of being caught in a system of imprisonment without being charged with a crime. That’s what happened to Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian citizen who was held captive at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba for being a suspected terrorist.

In many ways, “The Mauritanian” (directed by Kevin Macdonald) follows a typical formula of a movies about a wrongfully imprisoned person who’s fighting for legal justice and release from prison. There are crusading defense attorneys, corrupt government officials and brutal scenes of prison life. There’s also some hokey dialogue that lowers the quality of the movie.

However, the “The Mauritanian” is not a typical movie of this ilk because it tells a very specific story about someone who was imprisoned for years by the U.S. government without even being charged with a crime. And that’s highly unusual in any legal case in the United States. The other way that “The Mauritanian” is not a typical movie about a legal case is that the two defense attorneys who do the most work on the case are both women, and the defense team is led by a woman.

These legal dramas often take the perspective of the privileged lawyers involved in the case, but “The Mauritanian” never loses the perspective of the person who is suffering the most in this case: Slahi (played by Tahar Rahim), whose story is told from the moment he was questioned and detained, as well as through flashbacks. However, the movie gives a lot of screen time to the legal finagling that went on outside of Guantanamo Bay, in order to give scenes to the better-known actors in this cast who portray the lawyers and government officials who are in a power struggle over this case.

“The Mauritanian” opens with a scene of 30-year-old Slahi at a wedding reception in Mauritania in November 2001. Outside, he apprehensively meets with two plainclothes Mauritanian police officers who have shown up to question Slahi about where his cousin Khalid al-Shanqiti is. Slahi replies, “I have no idea where [he] is. I doubt even Bin Laden knows.” Viewers who don’t know the story will later find out in the movie that al-Shanqiti is a personal poet and spiritual adviser to Osama Bin Laden, who was widely identified as the leader of the terrorists behind the 9/11 attacks.

One of the cops tells Slahi: “After the New York attacks, Americans are going crazy. They want to talk to you.” A nervous Slahi goes inside the building and erases all of the contacts from his phone. Slahi then goes back outside and agrees to go for questioning, but he insists on taking his own car. What happened during that interrogation session, which is shown later in the movie as flashbacks, resulted in Slahi being imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay.

The movie then shows how lead defense attorney Nancy Hollander (played by Jodie Foster) got involved in the case. Hollander is portrayed as a no-nonsense, politically liberal lawyer who believes in the same ideals as the American Civil Liberties Union. She’s also a partner in the law firm Friedman, Boyd & Hollander, which is based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“The Mauritanian” presents a scenario of Hollander first becoming aware of Slahi’s case in 2005, when she has a lunch meeting with a colleague named Kent (played by David Flynn) from another firm. Kent tells her that a Mauritanian lawyer approached his firm to take Slahi’s case, but Kent’s firm declined the request. It’s mentioned during this lunch meeting that the German news publication Der Spiegel has reported that Slahi is suspected of helping plan the 9/11 attacks.

What lawyer wants to defend a suspected 9/11 terrorist and accuse the U.S. government of wrongful imprisonment of said terrorist? Hollander does. Her partners at the law firm discourage her from what they think will be a losing case, given the political climate at the time. They also don’t like that this would be a pro bono case for Hollander. In other words, she wouldn’t be getting a fee that would bring income to the firm.

Early on in the movie, it ‘s shown that Hollander is someone who likes to fight for underdogs, so she remains undeterred in wanting to taking the case. Because she’s a partner in the firm, Hollander has more clout than a junior lawyer or non-partner would have, so she ends up getting her way in the firm representing Slahi, with Hollander as his lead attorney. Hollander also has the advantage of having national security clearance, so she has access to certain information and people that a regular attorney would not have.

The first person she recruits to be her second-in-command attorney and researcher is Teri Duncan (played by Shailene Woodley), a junior attorney who shares Hollander’s enthusiasm for taking on the case. However, Duncan’s loyalties will be tested later on when things don’t go smoothly. Duncan is friendlier and more easygoing than Hollander, but Duncan is also someone who is more likely to be intimidated or discouraged by setbacks than Hollander is.

This contrast in Hollander’s and Duncan’s personalities affects the case in different ways. The first meeting that Hollander and Duncan have with Slahi at Guantanamo Bay (after they go through high-level clearances and briefings) is so they can convince Slahi to hire them as his attorneys. Hollander is noticeably stiff and uncomfortable in interacting Slahi, while Duncan is better at being more approachable in the conversation. Slahi can speak English, Arabic, French and German, although he sometimes needs a translator when he needs to speak to someone in English.

Duncan makes eye contact with Slahi in a way that makes him feel that he can trust them, so he agrees to let them be his attorneys. He also makes a remark that at this point in his dismal situation, he doesn’t have better options. These qualified attorneys, who wholeheartedly believe that Slahi is not guilty of being a terrorist, are offering their services for free, so it would also be foolish for him to turn down their offer.

While Hollander and Duncan are are on the case, the movie shows hints that Duncan is somewhat attracted to Slahi and might have a personal interest in him outside of their attorney/client relationship. (Duncan and Slahi were both single at the time this story took place.) It’s mentioned early on in the movie that Hollander was separated from her husband Bill and living alone during this time in her life. In other words, don’t expect to see scenes of Hollander with a family, like other characters have in the movie.

Slahi’s life before prison is shown in flashback scenes of him with his family members, including his controversial cousin al-Shanqiti, a known terrorist associate who used the aliases Abu Has al-Mauritani and Mafouz Walad al-Walid. Slahi was especially close to his mother, who expressed concerns abut him living in another country when Slahi was in his 20s and got an electrical engineering scholarship at a university in Germany.

After getting his college education, Slahi moved to Afghanistan in 1990. It was this period of time in his life that put him on the radar of being a suspected terrorist. As portrayed in the movie, Slahi and his cousin al-Shanqiti attended radical Islamic training groups. The U.S. government suspected that Slahi and his cousin al-Shanqiti joined the Al Qaeda terrorist movement that had Bin Laden as its leader at the time.

One of the main reasons for Slahi’s imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay was that the U.S. government accused him of recruiting to Al Qaeda one of the men who years later was identified as one of the 9/11 terrorists: Ramzi bin al-Shibh, also know as the 20th hijacker in the 9/11 attacks. Slahi vehemently denied that accusation, although he didn’t deny that he was taught Al Qaeda training in Afghanistan. In a flashback, it’s shown that Slahi believed the training he was undergoing in the 1990s was for Muslims to fight against Communism, and that Al Qaeda was on the same side as Americans.

However deeply involved in terrorism Slahi might or might not have been, or how credible he might or might not be, that wasn’t the key legal issue for Hollander and the defense team. As Hollander declares: “We have to prove that the U.S. government lacks sufficient evidence to detain him.” The defense team soon finds out that it will be an uphill battle.

On the opposite side of the case is Stuart Couch (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), a U.S. Marines veteran who was assigned as the lead prosecutor in Slahi’s case in September 2003, just one month after he joined the Office of Military Commissions. A graduate of the U.S. Navy’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training program, Couch has a personal reason for going after 9/11 terrorists: His close friend Bruce Taylor was on the plane that crashed into the Twin Towers’ South Tower in the 9/11 attacks. At a 9/11 anniversary memorial service, Couch comforts Bruce’s widow Cathy (played by Justine Mitchell) and tells her how proud he is to be prosecuting the case so he can help get justice for Bruce.

However, during Couch’s investigation to prepare for the prosecution, he begins to question how committed he’ll be to the case when he uncovers disturbing incidents of Guantanamo Bay prisoners (including Slahi) being illegally tortured during their interrogations. These torture scenes are shown in graphic detail in the movie, including horrific beatings and waterboarding. Couch’s investigation is further complicated because of his personal connection to one of the government officials whom Couch suspects is covering up incriminating information.

That person is Neil Buckland (played by Zachary Levi), who was a former classmate of Couch’s when they were stationed at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia. Buckland is portrayed as a manipulative villain who uses his past personal connection to Couch to try to cloud Couch’s judgment in the investigation. Couch considers himself to be a highly ethical person, but even he begins to wonder how much of the government’s violations he should expose when Buckland and some other government officials question Couch’s patriotism and competence.

Meanwhile, there’s a subplot of Slahi befriending a fellow Guantanamo Bay inmate known only as Inmate #241, who is originally from Marseilles, France. They never see each other because they are separated by walls. But they end up confiding in each other about their lives and what they hope to do if they’re ever released from prison. The movie portrays Inmate #241, who gives Slahi the nickname The Mauritanian, as the closest that Slahi came to having a true friend inside the prison.

At 129 minutes, “The Mauritanian” could have felt less bloated if about 15 minutes had been trimmed from the total running time. “The Mauritanian” director Macdonald keeps an even keel throughout the movie, which is part legal thriller, part prison drama. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s not an outstanding movie that will get the industry’s most prestigious awards.

All of the actors do well in their performances, particularly Rahim, who gives an authentic portrayal of the range of emotions that his character goes through in the movie. It’s a very human depiction that shows Slahi’s strengths, weaknesses and occasional flashes of humor in grim situations. Foster, Woodley, Cumberbatch and Levi are solid, but their roles are written in a fairly predictable way.

The movie falters the most in the screenplay, which was written by M.B. Traven (also known as Michael Bronner), Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani. They adapted the screenplay from Slahi’s best-selling 2015 memoir “Guantanamo Diary.” There are many times in the movie that might remind viewers of how a formulaic legal procedural series is written for television, especially during the courtroom scenes.

And the dialogue can be a bit corny at times. During a government meeting for the prosecution, one of the officials says of one of the suspected terrorists: “This dude is like the Al Qaeda Forrest Gump. Everywhere you look, here’s there.”

These flaws don’t ruin the movie, because they are outweighed by how compelling the story is and by how well this talented cast portrays it. The approach of the movie isn’t so much from a political perspective but from a human rights perspective. It’s clear that the filmmakers want “The Mauritanian” to serve as a statement that no government should act as if it’s above the law when it comes to violating human rights.

STX released “The Mauritanian” in select U.S. cinemas on February 12, 2021. The movie’s VOD release date is March 2, 2021. Universal Pictures Home Entertainment will release “The Mauritanian” on digital on April 20, 2021, and on Blu-ray and DVD on May 11, 2021.