When the Golden Globe nominations came out a couple of weeks ago, Tahar Rahim’s inclusion in the Best Performance in a Motion Picture - Drama category for The Mauritanian was a bit of a surprise. The film wasn’t yet widely released. So, some wondered if his nomination was at the expense of, say, Delroy Lindo for Da 5 Bloods. (Instead, maybe we should all be pissed at the inclusion of Gary Oldman for the utterly vacant Mank). But Rahim’s performance as longtime Guantánamo Bay detainee Mohamedou Ould Salahi in The Mauritanian is the film’s strongest quality: a fine-tuned amalgamation of bemused humor, quixotic anger, and irreversible tragedy. Perhaps the film falls into some expected narrative choices by telling us Salahi’s story through the eyes of white lawyers played by Jodie Foster (also rightfully nominated for a Golden Globe for her work) and Benedict Cumberbatch. Still, Rahim is so exceptional here. The resentment and pain and exhaustion he carries in his body so palpable and real that it’s impossible to consider The Mauritanian as anyone’s movie other than his.
The film from The Last King of Scotland director Kevin Macdonald and writers M.B. Traven, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani follows in the footsteps of films like The Report (good movie!) and Zero Dark Thirty (bad movie!) in taking us back to the time after September 11, 2001, when the U.S. government basically said, “Torture? Proceed!”
The Mauritanian begins in November 2011, when 30-something Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Rahim), visiting his North African home country of Mauritania for his cousin’s wedding, is brought in for questioning by the police. He left Mauritania years ago for Germany on an engineering scholarship, but then he spent a couple months training with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, inspired by their role in the Soviet-Afghan War. (Remember who supported the Mujahideen’s defense of Afghanistan in that war? The U.S.) He returned to his “normal life” after that time, and sure, he’s interacted somewhat with relatives and friends still in Al-Qaeda and still in Osama bin Laden’s orbit. But does that make him a terrorist or the engineer of the September 11 attacks, like the U.S. government claims? Absolutely not.
At least, that’s what he tells his lawyer. Nancy Hollander (Foster) and her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) take the case in 2004, after the German newspaper Der Spiegel breaks the story that Salahi and dozens of other men, who basically dropped off the face of the Earth after Americans brought them in for questioning, are being detained at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Have they been charged with anything? No. Salahi insists he’s innocent to a sympathetic Duncan. She is aghast at this execution of criminal justice, while Hollander is a little more skeptical. She’s not sure Salahi is telling the truth, and to a certain degree, she doesn’t give a shit. The question here is whether the U.S. government has enough to hold him, and if not, they need to let him go. She’s not interested in Salahi as a person, but as an example of American power turned feral, its self-righteousness ripening into decay.
Working on the other side is Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch, doing such a strange attempt at a Southern accent that I almost respected it, a la Robert Pattinson’s in The Devil All the Time). He is tasked by the U.S. military and U.S. government to bring charges against Salahi. Couch, who lost a friend in the September 11 attacks, sees the narrative that Army intelligence lays out against Salahi: phone calls he had with members of Al-Qaeda, money transfers, and testimony from various witnesses who finger Salahi as the terrorist group’s main recruiter in Germany. They say Salahi put the September 11 hijackers together, and Couch is convinced. Now all his team needs to do is read the testimony from Salahi himself, and from those who interrogated him, and from those who identified him, so he can string together names and dates and events into a cogent series of charges. Shouldn’t be hard, right, if Salahi is as guilty as they say?
This is where The Mauritanian switches into familiar legal thriller territory, with Hollander and Duncan and Couch and his team attacking the case from their respective sides. The defense attorneys struggle against the myriad limitations imposed by the U.S. government. This includes letters Salahi sends them that are opened and read, thousands of pages of documents that are delivered to them fully redacted, and the gatekeepers who refuse to let them see or read certain things. As for Couch, he struggles to get the materials he needs too, running up against wall after wall of government opposition, including Army intelligence officer Neil Buckland (Zachary Levi). Each side quickly realizes that the U.S. government is hiding something in their obfuscation, but what?
For all its predictability, The Mauritanian is effective in communicating the overall vibe a movie like this needs: the tension, the claustrophobia, and the increasingly pervasive sense that something is wrong here. It’s in how Macdonald more than once shoots a flapping American flag through a barbed wire fence, or shows us the open wounds on Salahi’s wrists and ankles from the constant handcuffs, or surrounds Hollander and Duncan with stacks and stacks of blacked-out papers, or stages Couch’s meetings with Buckland during inky, impenetrable nights.
You’ve seen a lot of this stuff before, but Macdonald does it well enough, and he’s aided by fantastic performances from Rahim and Foster both. Cumberbatch is fine, but his stiff performance — meant to reflect the character’s sense of morality — is somewhat wooden. Rahim and Foster, meanwhile, are a revelation and a reminder — Foster, for the absolutely cutting cold edge she brings here, an intensified version of the rage she brings to so many of her authoritarian roles, like in Inside Man, and Rahim for, well, everything he does.
For as much as The Mauritanian uses the lawyer characters to insert us into this world, Rahim grips us as soon as we’re in it. Flashbacks to Salahi’s childhood in Mauritania, young adulthood in Germany, and interrogation and torture in Cuba are shot in a boxier aspect ratio, so we feel the stifling nature of his memories, juxtaposed with the viciously cramped tininess of his Guantanamo Bay cell. Rahim’s performance maps the transformation of Salahi, the steady destruction of him from the person gently kissing his mother goodbye as he goes with the police, leaving her to count her tasbīḥ and wait for him, to the jokester trying to make the best of his captivity by kidding around with the kinder guards and befriending a fellow inmate, to the utterly broken, bruised, bloody, beaten, raped man he ends up being after years in confinement. Rahim adds little touches into his performance, from the sway of his body to the smirk on his lips, that capture the pervasive cynicism built over his ordeal. Then, his work during the film’s lengthy Jacob’s Ladder-like torture sequence is gut-wrenching to watch.
Which is, I think, my inherent queasiness with the The Mauritanian, although I think it’s a film successful in its aims to raise awareness about the ongoing ordeal at Guantanamo Bay. I don’t want to say The Mauritanian is exploitative, because like in The Report, I think there is unfortunate value to seeing the soul-crushing cruelty and revolting brutality that the American government allowed for in the name of patriotism and national security. But you know what else I remember? I remember no one watching The Report. I remember how collectively people—including well-meaning liberals!—seemed to shrug at this movie. What’s the issue here? Is it the fact that movies like this are clear that President Barack Obama’s resistance against the Terror Report, or his failure to close Guantanamo Bay, were part of an international policy, especially a Middle East policy, that was more destructively violent than we would like to admit? Is it the fact that stories of this type, which do depict violence and rape, might be triggering to watch for people, and are therefore avoided? Or is it that, I don’t know, disinterest in the Middle East and low-key Islamophobia are still widespread, and I feel a deep ache in my heart, and a deep anger in my soul, at the idea of a story like Salahi’s getting the cinematic treatment and still being ignored?
I don’t really have answers to these questions, I guess. But if you have the strength for it, watch The Mauritanian. This story matters, and what the American government did to Mohamedou Ould Salahi matters, and it would be nice if anyone gave a shit.
The Mauritanian is playing in theaters as of February 12, 2021.
Epidemiologists do not think it’s safe yet to go to theaters even with social distancing and safety measures in place. This review of a theatrical release is not an endorsement or suggestion otherwise. This film was reviewed via a screening link.
Image sources (in order of posting): STXfilms, STXfilms