Release Date: 09/04/2021
Cast: Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch, Shailene Woodley
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Rating: 3/5 (3 out of 5 Stars)
The Mauritanian is the story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim), a Mauritanian national who was literally kidnapped by the United States post 9/11 from his country using their local law enforcement authorities and was subsequently held without any charges for over 14 years. He was allowed a lawyer after spending 3 years without being charged and even after a US court ruled against holding him captive, he had to spend many more years in captivity because the Obama government appealed against the ruling. By the time, Slahi was released he had lost his mother and had spent a large chunk of his youth in a cell. What he was left with was a large cache of correspondences between him and his attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster). These letters would go on to form the basis of the book, Guantanamo Diary authored by Slahi and edited by Larry Siems. Even though heavily redacted, the book went on to become an international bestseller and the first book by anyone incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay. The Mauritanian is based on this very book.
We have seen films of similar nature uncountable times from Hollywood filmmakers and yet never got bored of the genre or theme. The fact still remains that the filmmakers chose the right stories and are so good at making these films that almost always they leave a resounding impact. The Mauritanian is no different. The film starts off by introducing us to the man that Mohamedou Ould Slahi was before he was kidnapped. We see him attending a family function and by how he is seen interacting with the attendees, we get an idea of the sophisticated and endearing personality that he possesses. We are also given a few sneaks into things that he does that are supposed to incite our suspicion for the man and his inclination towards Al-Qaeda. These are all very intelligent directorial choices and they add a lot to the story as these sequences are referenced numerous times through the course of the film.
A film like this is in many ways dependent on the fact whether the protagonist is rendered well enough to strike a chord with the audiences and reach out to them at an emotional level. If that is not the case, the entire film is liable to fall flat on its face. One also has to take into account the fact that most people view 9/11 as an unbearable calamity. The very thought of considering anyone even remotely associated with its planning or execution to be innocent is difficult and repulsive to most audiences. Hence the biggest challenge for the director, Kevin Macdonald was to have his titular actor play out the character in such a way that he is endeared to the audiences but at the same time, there is enough doubt about his innocence and incarceration to sustain some tension and drama in the narrative.
Tahar Rahim strikes the perfect balance between being someone who you feel is innocent but is also depicted as being sharp, intelligent, and resourceful enough to merit some doubt about his innocence. The film unfolds in a manner that draws a picture of his character in different timelines to maintain tension, evoking drama, and keep the proceedings interesting. He starts off as someone who even after years of incarceration hasn’t lost his sense of humour. We see him walk into Guantanamo Bay, drudge through the first few days of incarceration, make friends with a fellow inmate who he never gets to see, and also forge an easy and real camaraderie with his initial interrogators who, by the end of their term, start believing that he might just be innocent.
As the story progresses, he is handed over to a different and more violent team of interrogators who subject him to all the horrors that a general viewer associates with Guantanamo Bay. In all aspects of his character, Tahar Rahim excels wonderfully. He evokes sympathy from the audiences in the bits where we see him tortured. He shows intelligence and charisma in brief scenes that he shares with his attorney played by Jodie Foster and we see him making a nugget-sized impact on Nancy throughout the film. Nancy is initially doubtful of his innocence. By the end of it all, we see her warm up to Slahi and understand his true predicament. In a poignant sequence, we witness Nancy meeting Slahi for no reason at all and as she stares at him, we can see Slahi’s pain resonate in her eyes. It is easily the best scene of the film and is wonderfully rendered by Foster and Rahim.
Benedict Cumberbatch as the attorney for the Federal government has personal reasons to crucify the man. His closest friend was on the flight that was crashed by the Jihadist that Slahi was accused of recruiting. Interestingly, we never see his character go all guns blazing against Slahi and his approach is rooted in finding credible proof to work with against the man. In his search for evidence against Slahi, he sees things that he is not proud of and ultimately walks out of the case. In his action, the founding principles of the United States are well documented as he chooses to side with a man that the government wants to kill. He does so because he sees no merit in the evidence against him. Thus, Kevin Macdonald successfully paints a very liberal and appreciable picture of the US judiciary and that for many reasons aid the overall impact of the film.
The Mauritanian is a kind of film that one will enjoy if he/she is interested in watching how a man, wrongly incarcerated by the US, fights for years with the support of an American lawyer and finally gets back to his country. It neither has the kind of drama that you expect from a Hollywood courtroom drama nor does it have the raw brutality and thrills of a film like Zero Dark Thirty. It is a somber and held back treaty of the life and times spent in the incarceration of a man with emphasis on his mental state and the limited associations that he had during the period. The film also tries to bring out the kind of human rights abuses that were committed post 9/11 and the futility of it all. Personally, I identify with the Mauritanian and feel that something like this should never happen to anyone but at the same time, it was this kind of combing operation conducted by the US that ultimately led them to Osama Bin laden. Hence their methods, no matter how questionable, did ultimately work.
While The Mauritanian is rich in emotion and drama, it is a little low on the entertainment quotient and understandably so. It is not the kind of film that is laden with twists, turns, action, and explosions. Neither is it a bamboozling and fiery courtroom drama like this year’s Trial of the Chicago 7. Thus it will not impress one and all. One facet that does stand out in the film is its performances and the important subject matter that it sets out to deal with. Tahar Rahim’s terrific performance will definitely envelop you with its magic if you give it a chance.