The Mauritanian looks at a true story from three different perspectives. Two of them are quite intriguing, whereas the third feels a little too guided by the screenplay. As Meat Loaf famously said, two out of three ain't bad. The movie is based on a true story and looks at the U.S. response to suspected terrorists in the years after 9/11. That's a tall order, so perhaps the odds were against it getting everything just right. Even if partially flawed, though, enough about the picture works to draw you in.
Jodie Foster plays Nancy Hollander, an attorney who decides to take on a pro bono case. With the aid of assistant Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), she travels to Guantanamo Bay to meet with Mohamedou Slahi (Tahar Rahim). He's been detained and imprisoned by the U.S. government because they suspect, without evidence, that he might possibly, kind-of-sort-of had a connection to the 9/11 hijackers. Since he's never been charged despite being incarcerated for years, Nancy wants to help him.
Then there's Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), a military prosecutor assigned to take on Nancy in court. Actually, the government wants him to nail Mohamedou to the wall. Couch has a personal reason for wanting to do this; his best friend was on one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center. The Mauritanian isn't a courtroom drama, though. Both Couch and Nancy make some shocking discoveries about how captives are treated at Gitmo before entering a courtroom becomes necessary.
The very best scenes in the film involve Mohamedou. His questionable capture is depicted, as are the unpleasant conditions of his detainment, including those infamous “enhanced interrogation techniques” George W. Bush often talked about. The character worries about his mother, who has no clue where he is. He longs for connection, forming one with another inmate from whom he's always separated by fencing. Tahar Rahim captures his isolation and fear meaningfully, so that the effect of the inhumane treatment registers with maximum impact.
Sections focusing on Nancy are also captivating. The Mauritanian takes us through some of the legal procedures, showing how the government attempted to hide what was going on at Gitmo and how the attorney successfully did an end run around them. Jodie Foster is superb, as always, giving Nancy a no-BS personality, as well as some skepticism about Mohamedou's innocence. That's an unexpected twist – a cinematic lawyer who thinks her client might be guilty but feels compelled to fight for the rule of law anyway. Only an actor as accomplished as Foster could pull it off without seeming didactic.
The weak element is the part that focuses on Couch. Nothing against Benedict Cumberbatch, who is perfectly good in the film, but the way the character uncovers evidence feels like a succession of shortcuts. Basically, he reunites with an old military school pal (Zachary Levi) with inside knowledge, and that guy gradually doles out information to him. Of course, he could do it all at once, but that would throw off the plot's timing. We're therefore stuck with a series of unconvincing scenes in which Couch is gradually clued in to what really takes place in Gitmo.
Thanks to the Nancy and Mohamedou plot threads, The Mauritanian works sufficiently well. The look at how the U.S. detained and sometimes tortured suspects, even without clear-cut evidence of wrongdoing, is gripping. We all know how the Guantanamo Bay scandal played out. Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) dramatizes it with urgency and clarity.
out of four
The Mauritanian is rated R for violence including a sexual assault, and language. The running time is 2 hours and 9 minutes.