A powerful lead performance and a righteous rage drive this moving film about the human cost of the USA's sadistic foreign policy
As a director of both features and documentaries, Kevin Macdonald has built a reputation for thorough reconstructions of recent history. His latest, The Mauritanian, tackles one of the great unanswered crimes of the 21st century – the USA’s wanton denigration of human rights and dignity at Guantanamo Bay, under the nebulous banner of “national security.” It’s part old-school legal drama, part examination of the immense human and spiritual cost of America’s heinous foreign policy – an examination that, refreshingly, doesn’t feel the need to centre American feelings.
Instead, our lead is Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim), the Mauritanian of the title. Mohamedou’s cousin was part of Bin Laden’s inner circle so, with no real evidence other than this connection, the US government scooped Mohamedou up in November 2001, eventually shipping him off to Gitmo, where he would be imprisoned without charge and tortured for years on end. Parallel to Mohamedou’s story, we see the two lawyers who helped bring his case to the spotlight – human rights campaigner Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) in his defence and military lawyer Stu Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), who was prosecuting Mohamedou for a vaguely defined role in 9/11 and seeking the death penalty.
Both Foster and Cumberbatch’s story strands are engaging as they each, for different reasons, come up against walls of silence from America’s security state in their attempts to find evidence, but Mohamedou’s plot is by far the most compelling. He’s an extraordinarily charming and intelligent man, winning over his interrogators and guards even through an initial language barrier, and Rahim puts in a superb performance. Bouncing between Arabic, French, and English, he brings dignity and humour to the role, but also a deeply affecting rage and terror. A courtroom speech delivered late in the film is particularly moving, pain and hope intermingling to unforgettable effect.
Despite the chummy tone Mohamedou is able to strike with his captors – solders end up breaking protocol to tell him their names and give him information about his fellow prisoners simply to keep their conversations with him going – Macdonald and writers MB Traven, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani keep the horror ever-present. Even his advocate Nancy can’t help but dehumanise him and his situation, referring to him always as a case and never as a person, while the torture scenes – shot with disorienting Greengrass-esque shakycam – are sickening.
Macdonald switches to a restrictive, boxy aspect ratio whenever we return to Guantanamo, a technique that at first feels rather trite but reveals its power as the film progresses. The more time we spend with Mohamedou in his cell, the more we get used to the visual style, to the point that the returns to wide-screen feel unnatural and jarring, the freedom of the other characters becoming as unreal to us as it is to Mohamedou. Some other stylistic tics are less successful – the “home movie” look whenever we see into one of Mohamedou’s childhood memories feels very mid-noughties – but these are only brief blips.
The Mauritanian doesn’t shy away from directly calling out those responsible for the awful crimes of the War on Terror – of movies with this backdrop, it’s more closely related to the exactingly serious The Report than the bombast and cheap “moral ambiguity” of Zero Dark Thirty. George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld’s names pop up whenever the torture and abuse is at its worst, a much needed reminder of the horrible sadism of that administration, while the cowardly inefficacy of the Obama years is presented with just as much disdain.
Given the recent selective memory of the liberal American public regarding the crimes against humanity committed by all pre-Trump presidents, it’s cathartic to see a film with a full-throttle tirade against this kind of complacency. The Mauritanian could have been a pretty bog-standard “triumph against adversity” picture, but with Rahim’s powerhouse performance and a righteous rage burning in its heart, it winds up feeling like genuinely vital cinema.
The Mauritanian is available to stream on digital platforms from 1 April.Where to watch