In November of 2001, just two months after 9/11, Mohamedou Ould Slahi is at a joyous wedding celebration in a tent by the beach in his home country of Mauritania in East Africa when the local police arrive and say Slahi needs to come with them to be questioned by American authorities. Slahi is cooperative and friendly, and he puts on a brave face as he reassures his mother nothing is wrong, but we can see it in his eyes: This is not good.
It will be some 15 years before Slahi will know freedom again. Suspected of involvement in the planning of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Slahi will spend a decade and a half in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, repeatedly beaten, shackled, subjected to psychological and sexual abuse and kept in extreme isolation — but never officially charged with any crimes, let alone convicted.
This is the based-on-fact foundation of Kevin Macdonald’s searing and brutally raw “The Mauritanian,” a somewhat convoluted and occasionally formulaic but disturbingly effective legal political procedural that leaves questions about whether Slahi is actually guilty of helping coordinate the 9/11 attacks. But the film makes it crystal clear there was something scandalous, shocking and profoundly un-American about military personnel violating human rights and engaging in despicable torture tactics while a legal system that says everyone is entitled to habeas corpus — i.e., appearing before a judge to learn the reason he has been arrested and detained — turned its back on Slahi and hundreds of other Guantanamo Bay prisoners.
Tahar Rahim does a brilliant job of portraying Slahi as an empathetic and remarkably resilient man — while leaving some doubt as to whether he truly was an accomplice to mass murder. What’s the real story with that phone call and money transfer to his cousin, a known al-Qaeda operative? And what about the Yemeni jihadist who connected with Slahi at his apartment in Germany prior to the attacks? Working from a script by Rory Haines, Sohrab Noshirvani and journalist Michael Bronner (under the pseudonym M.B. Traven), director Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland,” “One Day in September”) is less concerned with investigating the merits of the case against Slahi than in exposing the atrocities committed against him while he was held for years without getting his day in court.
This viewpoint is represented by Jodie Foster’s Nancy Hollander, a veteran partner in an upscale New Mexico law firm who takes Slahi’s habeas corpus case as her latest pro bono crusade. With her idealistic but naïve junior associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) by her side, Hollander makes the journey to Gitmo, is taken through the labyrinthine and forbidding corridors of the prison and is allowed to meet with Slahi, who is understandably pessimistic and distrustful. He is a man on the verge of giving up hope, and as we see in the horrific torture sequences, it’s easy to understand why.
As Hollander starts to build her case for Slahi to at least stand in front of a U.S. judge (via video monitor), we’re introduced to key supporting characters, most notably Lt. Col. Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), a church-going, straight-shooting, universally respected prosecutor who was in the Marines with one of the pilots on United Flight 175 and is thus even more motivated to bring down Slahi. In one of those “You know, we’re not so very different” scenes, Hollander and Couch have a beer at the cafeteria at Gitmo and declare their respect for one another — and their equally firm resolve to win this case. Foster and Cumberbatch, as you would imagine, are magnificent in this expertly calibrated exchange.
Zachary Levi does fine work as a friend and associate of Couch who grows increasingly exasperated by Couch’s determination to follow accepted procedures and do everything by the book, even if it muddles the case against Slahi. Woodley’s Teri Duncan drifts in and out, at one point leaving the case because the exacting Hollander questions her dedication to it. At the heart of the story is the determination of Hollander to keep fighting through one setback after another, and Slahi’s resolve to retain his humanity and at least a sliver of hope, through all the abuse and the legal denials. In the epilogue for “The Mauritanian,” we see the real-life Slahi (who was finally freed in 2016), looking and sounding healthy and happy. Given everything we’ve just witnessed, that’s astonishing.