The Mauritanian tells a harrowing account of injustice, brutality, and moral reckoning in the aftermath of the tragic 9/11 terrorist attacks. Based on the book “Guantanamo Diary”, the film is the true story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, who was taken clandestinely via rendition to the prison camp in Cuba. His interrogation, tactics used, and the efforts to free him are explored in a well-acted, but overly procedural narrative. The Mauritanian makes a compelling case for introspection. We must hold the perpetrators of this heinous crime to account, but cannot trample on our bedrock values or succumb to unfettered vengeance.
The film opens on a Mauritanian beach two months after 9/11 in 2001. Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim) has returned from Germany to attend a relative’s wedding. He’s taken away by local authorities as his terrified mother watches. Two years later in New Mexico, prominent civil rights attorney, Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster), is approached by a former colleague (Denis Ménochet) to review a case pro bono. Salahi’s family had reached out to him after reading an article in a German magazine. It was their first clue to Salahi’s whereabouts after disappearing.
The Mauritanian then changes perspectives to Hollander, and her junior associate, Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), meeting Salahi for the first time in Guantanamo Bay. They are surprised he can speak English, but is fearful to speak openly. Hollander informs him that the US Supreme Court has authorized Guantanamo Bay detainees the right to legal counsel. She asks Salahi to write detailed notes about how he got to the camp and his treatment inside. Salahi had never been charged for a crime.
At the same time, the White House and Department of Defense sought the death penalty for aiding and abetting the 9/11 hijackers. Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) is assigned to prosecute Salahi. It was supposedly an open and shut case. Salahi’s cousin worked for Osama Bin Laden. Salahi fought with the Taliban against the Russians in Afghanistan. He was a terrorist and killer that needed to die for his crimes. But as Hollander and Couch prepare for trial, they both uncover a disturbing conspiracy regarding the case. The revelations, along with Salahi’s chilling recollection of his arrest and incarceration, painted a vastly different picture of the government’s case against him.
The events of September 11, 2001 will never be forgotten. The horror and heartache will always be felt, especially for those of us who lost dear friends and family. The Mauritanian strikes at the heart of a moral and existential dilemma. Should we allow innocent people to be swept up in a ruthless search for justice? Is extrajudicial rendition, imprisonment, and torture a necessary means to an end? Nancy Hollander, Teri Duncan, and Stuart Couch were branded as traitors for seeking the truth behind Salahi’s capture. They should be seen as heroes. The Constitution, the defining principles of Americanism, is sacrosanct. This is the message the film conveys.
Tahar Rahim has received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Drama. Mohamedou Ould Salahi was subjected to hideous torture and years of soul-crushing confinement. Rahim embodies his struggle to remain hopeful under the most dire circumstances. He delivers an incredible, nuanced performance. Propping up The Mauritanian when the narrative becomes labored. The film, despite its extraordinary content, feels like an episode of Law & Order at times. Tahir Rahim succeeds in humanizing Salahi. Thus making his awful experience relatable and teachable. The Mauritanian is a production of Wonder Street, 30 West, and BBC Films. It will be released theatrically by STX Films on February 12th.
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