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.

2018 CinemaCon: What to expect at this year’s event

April 23, 2018

by Carla Hay

CinemaCon

CinemaCon, the annual convention for the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), will be held April 23 to April 26, 2018, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. About 5,000 people attend the event, which gives movie studios the chance to showcase what they expect to be their biggest hits of the year.

Movie studios scheduled to give their presentations at the event are Sony Pictures Entertainment on April 23; Walt Disney Studios, STX Films and Warner Bros. Pictures on April 24; Entertainment Studios, Universal Pictures, Focus Features and Paramount Pictures on April 25; and 20th Century Fox, Amazon Studios and Lionsgate on April 26.

One of the highlights of CinemaCon 2018 will be the 2018 Pioneer of the Year Award Dinner on April 25. The event will honor Tom Cruise, the first actor to ever receive the award. Tony-and-Grammy-Award-winning “Hamilton” star Leslie Odom Jr. will perform at the event, which will include a special presentation from Cruise’s “Jack Reacher” director Christopher McQuarrie, who also directed Cruise in 2015’s “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” and 2018’s “Mission: Impossible – Fallout.”

CinemaCon culminates with the CinemaCon Big Screen Achievement Awards ceremony, which will take place April 26.

Here are the announced winners of the awards:

CinemaCon Lifetime Award
Jodie Foster

Jodie Foster (Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

Jodie Foster has been one of the most critically acclaimed actors in movies since made her big-screen debut in 1972’s “Napoleon and Samantha.” Her most famous movies include 1976’s “Taxi Driver,” 1997’s “Contact” and 2002’s “Panic Room.” She has two Oscars for Best Actress: for  1988’s “The Accused” and 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs.” In 2018, her thriller film “Hotel Artemis” is set for release. Foster has also become a respected director and producer, having helmed several feature films, including 1991’s “Little Man Tate,” 1995’s “Home for the Holidays,” 2011’s “The Beaver” and 2016’s “Money Monster.”

CinemaCon Icon Award
Samuel L. Jackson

Samuel L. Jackson (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures)

In a career spanning more than 45 years, Oscar-nominated Samuel L. Jackson has appeared in more blockbusters than any other actor. His hit films include 1993’s “Jurassic Park,” 1994’s “Pulp Fiction,” “Star Wars” Episodes I II and III, 2004’s “The Incredibles,” 2012’s “Django Unchained” and several Marvel Studios films, such 2010’s “Iron Man 2,” 2011’s “Captain America; The First Avenger,”  2012’s “The Avengers,” 2014’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” 2015’s “The Avengers: Age of Ultron.” The prolific Jackson has several movies scheduled for release. In 2018, his movies include “The Last Full Measure,” “Incredibles 2” and “Life Itself.” In 2019, he has three movies that are predicted to be big hits: “Glass” (the hybrid sequel to 2000’s “Unbreakable” and 2017’s “Split”), “Captain Marvel” and a remake of “Shaft.”

CinemaCon Visionary Award
Jack Black

CinemaCon Vanguard Award
Jonah Hil

Jack Black and Jonah Hill (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Grey Goose Vodka)

Jack Black and Jonah Hill are co-stars in 2018’s “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.” Although they have appeared in dramas, they are mostly known for their comedic roles. Black’s biggest hits include 2017’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” the “Kung Fu Panda” movies, 2003’s “School of Rock” and 2005’s “King Kong.” His other 2018 movie is “The House With a Clock in Its Walls.”

Hill, who received Oscar nominations for supporting roles in 2011’s “Moneyball” and 2013’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” has appeared in a number of hit movies, including 2007’s “Superbad,” 2012’s “21 Jump Street,” 2013’s “This Is the End,” 2014’s “22 Jump Street” and the “How to Train Your Dragon” movies. He’s also reunited with his “Superbad” co-star Emma Stone in the Netflix series “Maniac.”  In 2019, “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” is due out in cinemas.

CinemaCon Award of Excellence in Acting
Felicity Jones

Felicity Jones (Photo by Christopher Polk)

Felicity Jones had carved out a niche in independent films (usually dramas) before she was nominated for an Oscar for her supporting role in 2014’s “The Theory of Everything.” Since then, her career has grown by leaps in bounds, including starring roles in 2016’s biggest blockbuster, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” and 2016’s “Inferno.” In 2017, she starred in the critically acclaimed “Breathe.” She plays U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2018’s “On the Basis of Sex.”

CinemaCon Male Star of the Year
Benicio Del Toro

Benicio Del Toro (Photo by Richard Foreman Jr.)

Benicio Del Toro won an Oscar for his supporting role in 2000’s “Traffic.” He has developed a reputation for playing brooding, often mysterious characters in critically acclaimed movies that range from ,ow-budget independent films to major blockbusters. Del Toro’s best-known movies include 1995’s “The Usual Suspects,” 2013’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” and 2015’s “Sicario” and 2016’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”  His movies set for release in 2018 are “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” which is expected to the biggest box-office hit of the year.

CinemaCon Female Star of the Year
Dakota Johnson

Dakota Johnson (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

Coming from from a family of famous actors (her parents are Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith; her maternal grandmother is Tippi Hedren; and her former stepfather is Antonio Banderas), Dakota Johnson has forged her most recognizable identity in movies as the star of the “Fifty Shades” trilogy. She has four very different movies in 2018: S&M-themed romantic drama “Fifty Shades Freed,” the horror movie “Suspiria” and the thriller “Bad Times at the El Royale.”

CinemaCon Director of the Year
Ryan Coogler

Ryan Coogler (Photo by Han Myung-Gu/Getty Images)

After directing just three feature films (2014’s “Fruitvale Station,” “2015’s “Creed” and 2018’s “Black Panther”), Ryan Coogler has become one of the hottest filmmakers in Hollywood, thanks to the blockbuster success of “Black Panther,” which broke the record for the highest-grossing film to open in February. The movie also earned rave reviews from critics, and “Black Panther” is set to be in the Top 5 of the highest-grossing movies of 2018.

CinemaCon Breakthrough Producer of the Year
Gabrielle Union

Gabrielle Union (Photo courtesy of BET)

Gabrielle Union is not new to making movies (she’s starred in 2000’s “Bring It On” and 2012’s “Think Like a Man, among other films), but she is relatively new to producing movies. Union was an executive producer of her 2016 comedy film “Almost Christmas,” and she’s a producer of her 2018 thriller “Breaking In.”

CinemaCon Action Star of the Year
Taron Egerton

Taron Egerton (Photo by Larry Horricks)

Taron Egerton is best known to movie audiences as the star of the “Kingsman” movies: 2014’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and 2017’s “Kingsman: The Golden Circle.” His 2018 movies are the big-screen version of the true-crime drama “The Billionaire Boys Club” and as the iconic title character in “Robin Hood.” Egerton is also set to star as Elton John in the biopic “Rocketman,” whose release date is to be announced.

Cinema Spotlight Award
Anna Kendrick

Anna Kendrick (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

Anna Kendrick is best known for starring in the “Pitch Perfect” comedy/musical movies, but she is equally adept at doing dramas, such as her Oscar-nominated turn for her supporting role in 2009’s “Up in the Air.” Her 2018 movie is “A Simple Favor,” a mystery thriller

CinemaCon Female Star of Tomorrow Award
Tiffany Haddish

Tiffany Haddish (Photo by Michele K. Short)

Tiffany Haddish is a longtime stand-up comedian, but she had a major breakthrough in movies with her much-talked-about role in the 2017 comedy smash “Girls Trip.” Since then, her career has been on a hot streak, with starring role in TV and movies, including four films due out in 2018: “Uncle Drew,” “Night School,” “The Oath” and “Nobody’s Fool.”

CinemaCon Breakthrough Performer of the Year
LilRel Howery

LilRel Howery (Photo by Jason Lubin)

LilRel Howery made movie audiences stand up and take notice as the wise-cracking TSA worker in the 2017 horror blockbuster “Get Out.” It was a small but memorable role for the actor who was previously known on screen for starring as Bobby Carmichael in “The Carmichael Show.” Howery’s 2018 movies are the comedy “Uncle Drew” and the sci-fi thriller “Birdbox.”

CinemaCon Comedy Star of the Year
Kate McKinnon

Kate McKinnon (Photo by Adam Rose/ABC)

Kate McKinnon has already won multiple Emmys for her work on “Saturday Night Live,” but she has also made her mark on the big screen, with scene-stealing roles in 2016’s “Ghostbusters” remake, 2017’s “Rough Night” and 2017’s “Ferdinand.” In 2018, her comedy movies set for release are “Irreplaceable You” and “The Spy Who Dumped Me.”

Other awards that will be given at the ceremony:

  • CinemaCon International Filmmaker of the Year Award: J.A. Bayona, director of 2018’s “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”
  • CinemaCon Passpartout Award: Kurt Rieder,  20th  Century Fox International executive VP for theatrical in the Asia Pacific region
  • NATO Marquee Award: Alejandro Ramírez Magaña, Cinépolis CEO/general director
  • Career Achievement in Exhibition Award: Robert Carrady, Caribbean Cinemas president
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