The Mauritanian (now in theaters, though you’re more likely to catch it when it goes on-demand starting March 2nd) begins with both a return and an exit. A man named Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim) has come home to North Africa for a wedding. He’s been abroad, studying electrical engineering in Germany and living briefly in Montreal. It’s November 2001, two months after 9/11. While visiting with his family, the authorities drop by to see him. The Americans are interested in you, they tell Slahi. They want to know if you can help them locate your cousin, Mahfouz Ould al-Walid, a.k.a. Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, a.k.a. a member of Al Qaeda and advisor to Osama Bin Laden. If you could please come with us, we’d just like to ask you a few questions. His mother is worried. Slahi comforts her: They’re letting him drive to the station, he says. There’s no cause for alarm. He will be right back.
Should you already be familiar with Slahi’s story or have read his 2015 book Guantanamo Diary, you know what happens next. He’ll spend the next 14 and a half years detained at Gitmo, and subjected to all of the horrors those particular three words imply. To the guards and his interrogators, he is Prisoner 760; after befriending a French national who occasionally throws over a soccer ball into his outdoor pen, he dubs himself “the Mauritanian,” after his native land. But he is still Mohamedou, and if nothing else, Kevin Macdonald’s drama is determined to put a name and a face to the legion of largely anonymous casualties of the War on Terror — not the victims of attacks, but the other ones, i.e. mostly Middle Eastern men who, by some circumstantial evidence, slivers of association or maybe just their nationality, became wards of the state held in a perpetual purgatory. It also wants to remind you that yes, the War on Terror happened, something that folks may have forgotten given how much policy turnover and domestic turmoil we’ve experienced over the past four years.
Slahi’s firsthand account of life in Guantanamo is only one of the narrative strands we follow; there are two others jostling for screen time. Viewers also get to ride shotgun as human-rights lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster, rocking a wicked gray power bob) takes on Slahi’s case after a Der Spiegel story on his whereabouts broke in 2005. Along with her fellow attorney Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), she acts as counsel for the prisoner, as well as a tour guide for the bureaucratic labyrinth that characterized the handling of such highly classified, heavily redacted information around detainees. She’s our eyes and ears for the specific culture around the legal-limbo Cuban incarceration facility — the strangely picturesque bus rides, the prison gift shops that serve beer, the surfing off-duty guards — as well as the culture shock. When Hollander and Duncan arrive for their first meeting with Slahi, they’re advised to wear hijabs, as some inmates have been known to spit on female visitors. (To be fair, Clarice Starling had to put up with a hell of a lot worse.)
And then there’s Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch, admirably fighting a Southern accent to a draw), the military man who’s heading up the prosecution and has a personal stake in the outcome: A dear friend of his was on the plane that hit the second tower. Given that Slahi had trained in a terrorist camp in the early 1990s when Afghanistan was still fighting a communist regime, had received a call from his cousin on one of Bin Laden’s burner phones and had housed Hamburg cell member Ramzi bin al-Shibh at his apartment in Germany for a night — he is, per one government official, “the Al Qaeda Forrest Gump” — Couch assumes it should be easy to get a conviction. The more he digs into what has and hasn’t come to light regarding Prisoner 720, however, and gets drips of need-to-know intel from a buddy (Zachary Levi) with intimate knowledge of the case, the more he’s unsure of Slahi’s involvement with 9/11. Couch is our collective conflicted conscience. “Someone has to answer for that,” a colleague says regarding the attack. “Someone, not just anyone,” the prosecutor replies, with a screen actor’s perfect emphasis and timing.
You’ll run across a lot of moments like that in The Mauritanian, in which someone finds their light and utters a line with such studied, pitch-perfect gravitas that you can feel the weight of the film come crashing down on itself, or at least struggling to get out from its own sense of cinematic self-importance. Slahi’s story deserves to be told and retold, to be treated as part of the historical record when we talk about the fallout of a war fought on several fronts. To trap his tale in the amber of an old-fashioned prestige drama, however, complete with courtroom testimonies and terse conference room stand-offs and heartfelt pleas, doesn’t always do justice to his experience. Nor, for that matter, do the scenes of enhanced interrogation that are designed to replicate Slahi losing his mind, which walk a fine line between nightmarish and a sort of vulgar campiness. Couching all of this in a familiar if slightly dated formula — remember when movies like this were the rule, and not the exception? — sometimes feels a little reductive here, even with an old hand like Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) at the helm and Foster’s signature steely-yet-vulnerable emoting on deck.
Still, there is a beacon of light, and a very bright one, at the center of all of this. Anyone who regularly seeks out contemporary foreign-language films doesn’t need to be told that Tahar Rahim is an extraordinary talent — it is a truth that’s self-evident if you’ve seen A Prophet, or The Past, or Joachim Lafosse’s criminally underrated Our Children, to name just three. Ditto viewers of Hulu’s miniseries The Looming Tower, in which the French actor played someone on a very different side of the War on Terror, FBI agent Ali Soufan. There’s a wariness he gives Shafi, especially during the prisoner’s scenes with his lawyers: It’s a constant feeling-out process with two people who say they’re on his side, but who he never feels he can truly let his defenses down in front of.
And there’s also a rawness Rahim shows as he’s consistently questioned, beaten, berated, transferred from cell to cell, tortured, mentally and spiritually broken. Watch the actor’s darting eyes whenever someone enters a room, or he’s taken to a new space. Listen to him as he chats with a fellow, mostly unseen inmate in French, in sequences that almost play like Beckett excerpts. And despite the Halloween haunted-house vibe the film gives those Grand Guignol Gitmo sequences, pay attention to what he’s doing in the middle of the chaos. Rahim is supplying soul and some interesting shades of gray to this portraiture. He’s giving you a person in the middle of what often feels like broad punditry sketches. Not even a climactic speech about tolerance and justice and the American way, delivered via video monitor during a legal proceeding, can sink him. (The way Macdonald undercuts that feel-good ending is indeed one of the more subversive elements of a movie that is anything but.)
It’s a performance that justifies what, in so many ways, feels like a very surface-level skimming of Shafi’s prison-survivalist tale. There’s a reckoning that’s needed in regards to the ends-justify-the-means conduct that happened in the aftermath of a global catastrophe on American soil. The Mauritanian isn’t adding much to that conversation, other than putting the spotlight on one man’s story one more time. Yet in watching Rahim do his part to tell it, it’s possible to see someone get lost and delirious within a system designed to make folks disappear and slowly, surely find himself once again.