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.

Review: ‘Life in a Day 2020,’ the sequel to director Kevin Macdonald’s documentary compiling a day in the lives of people around the world

February 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Life in a Day 2020” (Photo courtesy of YouTube Originals)

“Life in a Day 2020”

Directed by Kevin Macdonald

The movie has several languages in subtitles.

Culture Representation: Taking place in various locations around the world, the documentary “Life in a Day 2020” features racially diverse groups of people (white, black, Asian, Latino and indigenous) who filmed themselves and their surroundings on July 25, 2020.

Culture Clash: The documentary shows people with contrasting lifestyles, socioeconomic backgrounds, religious customs and political ideologies.

Culture Audience: “Life in a Day 2020″ will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching documentaries that are more about quick montages than in-depth profiles.

A scene from “Life in a Day 2020″ (Photo courtesy of YouTube Originals)

On July 24, 2010, director Kevin Macdonald had thousands people around the world film any aspect of their lives on that day. With the help of a large team of editors and other filmmakers, the resulting footage was compiled and edited into the quick-cutting montage documentary “Life in a Day,” which was released in 2011. Ten years after Life in a Day” was filmed, Macdonald revisited the same concept in the same short-attention-span style, but this time the participants filmed on July 25, 2020. The edited results are in the documentary “Life in a Day 2020,” which had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. “Life in a Day 2020” is a sequel that proves that the novelty has definitely worn off of crowdsourcing cinematography, but the movie can be mildly recommended for people who are curious or bored.

According to a written prologue in “Life in a Day 2020,” Macdonald and his team received 324,000 videos from 192 countries. “Life in a Day 2020” has much less appeal than its predecessor documentary because in the 10 years since the original “Life in a Day” was filmed, millions of more people around the world have been putting videos of their daily lives on the Internet. “Life in a Day 2020” is a YouTube Originals documentary, so the movies has a predictable montage of YouTubers who want to be famous. It feels a bit too meta.

People who saw the original “Life in a Day” back in 2011 would be hard-pressed to remember much about it, unless they were in the movie or personally knew someone who was. A frustration with the original movie and the sequel is that they both jump around so fast that these quick cuts don’t allow the viewer enough time to really get to know anyone in the documentary. It’s definitely a case of cramming in as much as possible, with quality sometimes sacrificed for quantity.

However, there’s still enough to hold people’s interest if viewers want to take a whirlwind cinematic ride around the world. Just don’t expect the movie to indicate which countries are being shown in each piece of footage, or the names of people in the footage, unless someone specifically says where they are, or you can identify what language is being spoken. There are no written indicators to guide viewers about the locations of almost all of the footage in the movie. The end credits show a long list of people who appear in the film, but it isn’t much help because the names aren’t put to faces.

The documentary’s editing is random and all over the place. Some parts of the movie are montages of people from different parts of the world doing the same things, such as women giving birth, people praying, or people at weddings. Occasionally, some people are seen in the film in one scene and are revisited later in the movie, such as a young man in an unknown U.S. state who’s standing near a train track and says he has a goal to film seven trains before the end of the day. It’s not exactly compelling or suspenseful, because you know he wouldn’t be in the movie if he didn’t reach that goal.

A lot of the movie is about showing kids and families at play. The family scenes are fairly typical, very tame, and almost always harmonious. (There are no big family squabbles in this movie.) A Southeast Asian father in India lovingly talks about how today is his daughter’s birthday. An American mother wakes up her kids with a smile and remarks how they have their phones in their hands while sleeping in bed. She says, “This is the generation we live in, where kids go to sleep holding a cell phone.”

There are large sections of the movie that show love and romance. Couples (gay and straight) are seen kissing, in a montage from various locations. Girlfriends coo, “I love you” to boyfriends who are filming them.

And in case people think the documentary only shows love-dovey relationships, there’s a scene with a woman who calmly breaks up with her boyfriend while he’s filming her cooking at a stove. And then she bursts into tears. You have to wonder who sent in this footage for the documentary. (She probably did.)

In another scene, a man proposes to his girlfriend and she won’t give him an answer, but you can tell she wanted to say no, but not on camera. Sitting by himself in his car after this semi-rejection, the man says that all relationships goes through ups and downs. If director Macdonald makes a 2030 version of “Life in a Day,” who wants to bet this couple won’t be together by then?

Speaking of follow-ups, there are a few people who were in the original “Life in a Day” that make a reappearance in “Life in a Day 2020.” One of these appearance is memorable and heartbreaking, while the other is innocuous. The re-appearance that’s not very special is of an unidentified boy who’s about 11 or 12 years old, who’s sitting in a diner-styled restaurant somewhere in Asia with his father, stepmother and a girl who’s about 9 or 10 and could be his sister or stepsister. All the boy says is that he was in the first “Life in a Day” movie and his father had remarried since that movie was filmed.

The other reappearance shows an American mother watching “Life in a Day” on her TV and fast-forwarding to the scene of her son Alexander Lucas (whose nicknames were Alex and ATG), who was 14 when she filmed herself waking him up in his bed. In “Life in a Day 2020,” the mother, with her voice almost breaking into tears, shows where he is now: His ashes are in an urn. And she says he died of complications from COVID-19. The documentary epilogue shows that “Life in a Day 2020” is dedicated to Lucas.

The COVID-19 pandemic is given some screen time, but not as much as you might think. There’s a montage of funerals for people who’ve died of COVID-19. And throughout the film, there are shots of people wearing masks. But then, there are other scenes of people partying in groups, not wearing masks and not social distancing, as if they’re not in the middle of a deadly pandemic.

Speaking of not wearing masks during the pandemic, there’s a scene of an American man in his 30s who’s shown filming himself jogging in his neighborhood and then stopping at his house and pointing to an American flag. While he looks around, he proudly states that he won’t wear a mask and no one is protesting against him because of it. No one is protesting because he’s on an empty street with no one else nearby.

A middle-aged American man, who says he lost everything because of the COVID-19 pandemic, is shown living out of his van. He says homeless people like him are “the invisible people.” Later, he finds comfort in flying some remote controlled toy aircraft, and he says that this activity helps him take his mind off of his problems.

“Life in a Day 2020” gives a bare minimum of screen time to all the political and social unrest that was happening around the world in July 2020. The U.S. presidential election or any divisive political issue that was big news in July 2020 is treated like a minefield that the documentary largely wants to avoid. The Black Lives Matter movement gets less screen time in the documentary than montages of people acting goofy in their homes.

If there’s one major flaw of “Life in a Day 2020,” it’s that there should have been more footage for things that look specific to 2020. The worldwide racial reckoning that reached a fever pitch in July 2020 is barely acknowledged. There’s a quick scene of a shrine to George Floyd outside of the place where he died in Minneapolis. And there are a few African Americans throughout the movie who talk about police brutality and racism, including the deaths of Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

A woman in her 20s films herself in a car trying not to get emotional about a police department refusing to release video of what happened when a young, unarmed black man died in police custody. She says she has two brothers who died this way. And in another scene, an African American man in his 20s drives past a house covered in Confederate flags. “This is something I have to deal with every day,” he says in a rueful voice.

Meanwhile, in another part of the movie, an avid Donald Trump supporter named Gerardo Duran, a former first class sergeant in the U.S. military, is at his home and proudly shows off a framed 2017 letter that was signed from Donald and Melania Trump. In the letter (which clearly shows his name), Duran gets birthday greetings and a thank you for his military service. He also shows photos of himself on duty when he was in the military.

And for comic relief, the documentary includes selfie video footage of a traffic officer in Los Angeles as he gives out parking tickets. There’s a montage of people whining or giving excuses for why they shouldn’t get a ticket, but he remains unmoved and gives them tickets anyway. The camera shows him muttering sarcastic remarks to himself about the types of people he has to deal with when he’s working. No word on what this traffic officer’s boss will think when seeing this footage.

And then there’s another scene that’s unintentionally funny. A middle-aged American man, who appears to be some kind of New Age counselor with symbols painted on face, is leading a small group meeting. In the middle of his spacey babbling about how he’s such a giving person, he starts to cry. “I’ve been giving for 50 years, and it’s like medicine for me,” he sobs. It looks like a comical parody of a hipster “soul cleansing” session, but it’s obvious that everyone there was being serious.

Something that’s a little odd about “Life in a Day 2020” is that there’s a lot of footage of women being filmed by their boyfriends or husbands, not the other way around. It definitely gives the movie a very “male gaze.” Seriously, out of all the thousands of hours of footage that was sent for this documentary, the filmmakers couldn’t find enough footage of women taking videos of their significant others to balance things out? Women can hold a phone that has a videocamera just as easily as men can.

One of the people who gets more than one scene in the movie is an American woman being filmed by her husband or love partner (who’s not seen on camera), as she goes into a medical facility to get the results of her pregnancy test while he waits in the car. When she comes out of the building and goes back to the car, she tells him that she’s not pregnant and then she bursts into tears. He comforts her and tells her that they’ll keep trying to get pregnant, and then they talk about possibly going through in vitro fertilization treatments. Later in the movie, she has cheered up a little bit and talks about how becoming a mother is the most important thing she wants to do in her life.

And there’s another emotionally moving scene of loved ones dealing with some medical issues. A wheelchair-using father and his daughter, who’s about 7 or 8 years old, talk about the future. (They sound like they have Australian or New Zealand accents.) He says he wants to get well and the daughter shows optimism that he will. There are also some scenes of people in hospitals or in their homes as invalids. The movie doesn’t slow down long enough to say what kinds of illnesses these people have.

On a lighter note, there are a few eccentrics who are in the documentary. An elderly man is shown introducing the spiders in his home, who all have names that he’s given them. A transgender woman somewhere in Asia struts her stuff and holds her head high, even when she is taunted by a few men on the street. And then she bursts into song.

There are also several predictable scenes of people in all types of environments interacting with their pets (dogs, cats, birds, goats, etc.) and sometimes treating the pets like humans. And there’s a montage of wildlife too, on land and in open waters. There’s also footage of farm animals that are being handled as future meat for people. (Look away if the sight of helpless baby chickens on a conveyor belt is too much for you.)

The documentary has a few references to environmental issues. There are many scenes showing places that range from literally dumpy (such as a garbage landfill) to beautifully scenic and pristine, and everything in between. In Nigeria, a man is shown in the middle of a flood and worries about what will happen to his home. And since July is winter in some parts of the world, the seasonal landscapes look different, depending on the country. It’s too bad the documentary doesn’t tell viewers the specific city or country of where each scene takes place.

Ultimately, “Life in a Day 2020” is a documentary that looks a lot like a compilation of social media videos from around the world. Back in 2011, it might have looked more fascinating. But now, smartphones have become so common that anyone with a smartphone can become a filmmaker and put the footage on the Internet. If people really want to see everyday lives around the world, they can do that anytime on the Internet without waiting 10 years for another documentary about it.

YouTube Originals will premiere “Life in a Day” on February 6, 2021.

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