The title character in “The Mauritanian” is Mohamedou Slahi, who was picked up in 2002 and turned over to the CIA, which claimed he had worked for Al Qaeda, responsible for recruiting the men who plotted and executed the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Slahi was taken to the prison at Guantanamo.
After Slahi had been kept in a cell there for years without being charged, an American defense attorney named Nancy Hollander decided to take up his case, filing a writ of habeas corpus. In doing so, Hollander opened a can of worms, with the US government and military refusing to supply her with relevant paperwork, or redacting so much it was rendered unusable. However, Hollander urged Slahi to start writing about the conditions of his imprisonment and his backstory. It was those letters that eventually turned the case around and got him released — fourteen years later.
While watching “The Mauritanian,” I kept reminding myself how important it is to remember that two things can be true at the same time. Slahi may or may not have been as involved in the events of 9/11 as the CIA said he was, but what’s certain is that the US government couldn’t prove it, which is why it tried to keep his case out of court for as long as possible.
As a movie, “The Mauritanian” has to overcome some of the same issues as “The Report,” a 2019 movie I ranked among that year’s ten best (my review is here). Specifically, while it is a necessary part of building any legal case, it’s not very compelling to watch people sitting in a secure room, looking through boxes and boxes of documents. To overcome that, director Kevin Macdonald and writer Michael Bronner include several scenes of Slahi being tortured in an attempt to extract information from him. Much of that “enhanced interrogation” is brutal to watch, more so with the knowledge that such techniques failed — and not just with Slahi (see my 2008 conversation with Matthew Alexander, chief US interrogator in Iraq and author of “How To Break A Terrorist”).
Unfortunately, “The Mauritanian” never breaks above the level of yawn-inducing, despite the fine efforts of Jodie Foster as Hollander and Tahar Rahim as Slahi. Macdonald clearly wants us to sympathize with and root for Slahi, but every time we’re on the verge of that, here comes another scene overflowing with tedious verbosity. Moreover, Shailene Woodley is completely wasted in the underwritten role of Hollander’s assistant, and Benedict Cumberbatch is horribly miscast as the southern military lawyer assigned to prosecute Slahi.
It also feels like the matters this movie covers are nearly moot at a time when Americans are consumed with the very real threats of domestic turmoil, when our enemies are within our own borders, not overseas.
I give “The Mauritanian” a 4 out of 10. Now streaming via video on demand.