Some people call him Prisoner 760, while others call him “The Mauritanian.” His name, however, is Mohamedou Ould Salahi. He is a detainee, a captive, and a victim of circumstance. To call him a terrorist, however, is an effort requiring 14 years and numerous human rights violations committed against him. Even then, the label doesn’t stick.
Salahi’s story fuels The Mauritanian, which is an intense and timely procedural about the costs of America’s war on terror. Tahar Rahim plays Salahi with an impassioned performance that easily marks his best work since his breakthrough A Prophet. He enlivens Salahi with the combination of fear and resilience that marks the character’s 14-year journey through hell. The Mauritanian uses one man’s story to give voice to the victims of America’s disgrace.
The Mauritanian begins chaotically and gains coherence as the parties in Salahi’s tale elucidate the conspiratorial web that ensnared him. The film opens with his arrest in 2002 when the CIA seized him using extraordinary rendition, which eventually brought him to Guantanamo Bay. Nobody knows of his whereabouts for years despite the pretense of his arrest being alleged involvement in 9/11.
The film gains momentum when lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) learns of Salahi’s case. Defending an alleged 9/11 recruiter isn’t on her agenda, but the implications of Salahi’s situation are obvious to Nancy. If the American government detains suspects without charges, they’re no better than the terrorists. With no formal charges pressed and no paper trail to follow, red flags lead her to Guantanamo. She and her aid Teri (Shailene Woodley) assume Salahi’s case without presuming his innocence. Nancy’s tact is one of habeas corpus.
Navigating Salahi’s case for the prosecution is Stu Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch, sporting a twangy accent). The trial is personal for Couch since his friend was among the pilots killed on 9/11, although even his proximity to the case can’t blind him to the lack of case at hand. The Mauritanian unfolds as an unconventional procedural as both Nancy and Stu try to understand the CIA’s interest in Salahi. Although the drama might have been tighter without a third party gobbling up so much screentime, Stu’s involvement lends a novel bipartisan approach. When a lefty lawyer and a pro-Bush military prosecutor both fail to find cause for Salahi’s guilt, their parallel inquiries converge as they look deeper into the conditions at Guantanamo that brought the true criminals to light.
The Mauritanian recalls Scott Burns’ riveting drama The Report with its potent interrogation of the CIA’s use of torture. The film delves into a labyrinth of redacted papers, cover-ups, and conspiracies. It unabashedly wears its politics openly, calling the audience to be active witnesses to the crimes of the state. Yet where The Report is verbose and talky, The Mauritanian is taut and introspective. It lingers on the hell its characters encounter in the cells of Guantanamo or the dank storage rooms of military facilities.
Director Kevin Macdonald (State of Play) creates a tense and claustrophobic environment to represent Guantanamo Bay. The smart, economic production design simply harnesses tarps and chain-link fences to contain the characters and box out the world. Outside Guantanamo, The Mauritanian envisions labyrinthine spaces in which the lawyers find themselves engulfed by the conspiracy. As Nancy unpacks Salahi’s case, the few files she receives from the CIA are redacted chaos. The case for Salahi seems to be non-existent, as if Uncle Sam simply wants him to hang in limbo in the absence of evidence. To gain some clarity and understand the story obscured by black ink, Nancy asks him to write his side.
So begins a feverishly prolific writing period. Salahi’s memoirs, eventually published as Guantanamo Diary, recount the gut-wrenching hell in Guantanamo that’s since become public. Accounts of giving testimony under duress, and interrogation tactics employing escalating forms of torture, assault, humiliation, and degradation are all part of the Guantanamo playbook. Macdonald weaves between past and present as Mohamedou recalls the period between his arrest and Nancy’s arrival. During this time, he befriends a fellow prisoner and learns English. He learns whom he can trust, which is a small list given the horrors he sees.
Foster is the film’s secret weapon
The Mauritanian ultimately finds its voice in the dialogue created between Mohamedou and Nancy through the edits. Rahim obviously gets a bravura monologue in the film’s final moments of unabashed soapboxing, yet Foster ultimately emerges as The Mauritanian’s secret weapon. Nancy reminds Teri of Mohamedou’s probable guilt early during their research, but as the investigation opens her eyes, Foster remarkably conveys the lawyer’s awakening. Foster brings the simmering anger that ignites some of her best work—think Silence of the Lambs and The Brave One—but also the unwavering authority of her stealthiest turns, like in Spike Lee’s Inside Man. Despite her petite physical stature, Foster commands the screen through the strength of Nancy’s convictions. This performance is a full-blooded cocktail of pissed-off rage and frustration. One can feel the anger percolating and shouting that the time to change is now.
“My client is not a suspect,” says Nancy late in the film. “He’s a witness.”
This element of bearing witness similarly arises through the play between past and present. Macdonald and cinematographer Alwin Küchler convey the sequences in the past through rougher and grainier images visualising hell on earth. The Mauritanian has a stark grittiness to the flashbacks as Mohamedou’s story reveals evidence that the public was never meant to see.
The Mauritanian, visually and thematically, feels like a natural progression in Macdonald’s body of work. He makes expansive archival documentaries about Bob Marley and Whitney Houston one year and YA stuff like How I Live Now the next. In between are sturdy, tough-as-nails journalistic thrillers like State of Play and The Last King of Scotland. Despite the inconsistency of the kinds of films he makes, however, the quality of his work is consistent. He is at his best with hard-hitting films that ask tough questions. The Mauritanian sits well-within this pedigree. It’s a politically-charged thriller firmly grounded in Macdonald’s roots in non-fiction storytelling.
Let’s not forget: Macdonald is the only filmmaker to have won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature and to have directed an actor to an Oscar win. His Oscar-winning doc, One Day in September, fearlessly interrogated the 1972 massacre at the Munich Olympic. At its centre was an interview with the surviving Black September terrorist responsible for the crime. The Oscar-winning performance he directed, of course, was Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Whether with drama or with documentary, Macdonald “goes there.” He isn’t afraid to have difficult conversations in service of a story. The Mauritanian harnesses these poles of Macdonald’s oeuvre, delivering a blood-boiler procedural and a solid interrogation of American policy. What does it say about America when its government’s actions are the stuff of bone-chilling true crime?