The sobering history of detentions at Guantanamo Bay has already been well documented, yielding a so-so movie last year in “The Report.” “The Mauritanian” thus feels like an earnest but uninspired movie that only marginally advances the ball, assembling a stellar cast in the service of one detainee’s terrible ordeal, while its marquee stars largely take a back seat to Tahar Rahim in the central role.
Rahim plays Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian whose contacts with Al-Qaeda resulted in his arrest in 2002, with the US government fingering him as a major recruiter for the terrorist group. That led to incarceration in Gitmo and subjection to what euphemistically came to be called “harsh interrogation techniques,” otherwise known as torture.
Even a suspected terrorist is entitled to a defense, albeit under unusually intrusive conditions. Enter attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster), who takes up Slahi’s cause, prosecuted by straight arrow Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch, adopting a good ol’ Southern accent), who had lost a close friend in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Directed by Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”), from a script based on Slahi’s memoir “Guantanamo Diary,” the movie oscillates among those key players, with Foster joined by Shailene Woodley as a young associate assisting her, and Zachary Levi as Couch’s friend who might have information pertinent to Slahi’s trial.
The most harrowing material focuses on Slahi, snatched from his home when the movie begins, who somehow manages to maintain his sanity in the face of abuses designed to push him to the brink of losing it.
In perhaps the strongest wrinkle, that includes bonding with an unseen prisoner with whom he chats through a partition, despite uncertainty whether he can be trusted or represents another means of manipulating him.
There have been many tales about the indomitable nature of the human spirit, and Rahim (who also stars in the upcoming Netflix series “The Serpent”) earns his place on the roster of such roles, as Slahi speaks about how he has “trusted in American justice” – an act of faith called into question by his experience. Yet the film is also the story of attorneys who stood to uphold those hallowed principles as they were bent and broken in the name of combating terrorism.
As noted, the government’s actions in response to the Sept. 11 attacks have been widely debated and condemned, though “The Mauritanian” has the advantage of coming at them from a very specific angle and with enough distance to provide greater perspective.
The overall effect, however, is more dutiful than stirring. During a pivotal scene, Hollander and Couch meet to discuss the case, with the defense lawyer asking the fundamental question regarding his expressed certainty about her client’s guilt: “What if you’re wrong?”
“The Mauritanian” is a bit of a throwback – a solid, old-fashioned piece of entertainment, but not a great movie. But in its objective to present what being wrong meant for our view of “American justice” and democracy, that’s one thing that the film gets very right.
“The Mauritanian” will premiere Feb. 12 in US theaters. It’s rated R.