Movie Review: The Mauritanian (2021)

TL;DR – star studded cast delivers a legal drama with punch. Based on the memoir Guantanamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi who was detained and tortured at Guantanamo Bay detention camp on suspicions of terrorism.

Review (warning: spoilers)

There is a statistic shown at the end of the film that states, “Of the 779 prisoners who have been held at Guantanamo, eight have been convicted of a crime. Three of those convictions have been overturned on appeal.”

Mohamedou Ould Slahi was one of those 779, and spent 14 years at Guantanamo. Seven of those 14 years were spent after he won a court case where the judge ordered his release. Yes, you read correctly. He spent seven years in prison, testifies in court, wins his case, and then spends a further seven years before finally being released. Not only that but Mohamedou Ould Slahi was held in prison for 14 years without ever being charged for a crime.

Both the statistic at the end of the film and Mohadmedou’s story demonstrates a system that has failed. Terrorism suspects are detained without due process and interrogated without restraint. It is a damning indictment on human rights.

Directed by Kevin Macdonald, The Mauritanian is a semi-documentary style drama that is straight forward in its telling. It’s a heavy film, depressing and frustrating, where the shocks are mainly attributed to the torture scenes as opposed to the legal failings. The film is elevated by incredible performances of its cast.

Slahi (Tahar Rahim) and Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster, Slahi’s lawyer) are a tour de force. Both Rahim and Foster were nominated for their roles (Foster won Best Supporting actress at the Golden Globe Awards). Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) is Hollander’s co-counsel and Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the prosecutor. Together, both prosecution and defence go through the process for which they are hired and encountering all manner of obstacles along the way in getting the information they need to build their case.

It is clear early on that Couch is a principled lawyer. He has every reason to prosecute Slahi and wants the man to get the death penalty. But only if there is irrefutable proof that Slahi had a significant hand in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The proof comes in the form of Slahi giving a signed confession. But when Couch demands to see the process undertaken to obtain Slahi’s confession and is met with a brick wall of individuals saying just prosecute the guy and don’t worry about how he came to confess, you know that the end does not justify the means.

Hollander receives what occurred from Slahi himself, and the inhuman ways he was treated before he “confessed”. This isn’t mere confession under duress, this is pure hell. How Slahi survived is a miracle in itself. The interactions between Hollander and Slahi are the highlight of the film.

However, in the end, the film does not pack the punch you would expect from such atrocities. There’s something missing in the telling, as if the writers were merely reporting on events as opposed to telling a story. Nevertheless, it is still worth watching. The real life footage at the end of Slahi returning home and his lawyers Hollander and Duncan are incredibly moving.

7.5 out of 10

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