When Abraham Lincoln was sworn into a second term, he spoke to all Americans, appealing to “the better angels of our nature.” An uneasy optimist, Lincoln held hope that our noblest qualities could outshine our ugliest impulses–that our inherent goodness could lead to unparalleled greatness. He looked ahead and saw so much potential, without even knowing what shape it might take.
For all his oratorical poetry, for all the gifts that allowed him to look above and beyond his own time, Lincoln could have never imagined a day like 9/11. That Tuesday morning eventually stretched our greatness and goodness almost to the point of snapping them both in half. Yes, heroes were made that day, and our national pride and unity reached new levels in the weeks that followed. But that initial wave of hope and healing was followed by a basic human need to make somebody somewhere pay. Our pursuit of monsters provoked some truly monstrous deeds.
The Mauritanian focuses on Mohamedou Ould Slahi, one of the victims of that vengeance. The story begins in late 2001, when Slahi (Tahar Rahim) is plucked from his home and handed to American military intelligence. Slahi has tangential connections to Al-Qaeda: He fought with the mujahideen to liberate Afghanistan from the Soviets, and his cousin became a trusted advisor to bin Laden. Slahi’s cousin called him from bin Laden’s satellite phone, which resulted in a massive transfer of cash. Most damning, a potential hijacker spent the night at Slahi’s flat in Germany, and named him as a high-level recruiter for the terrorist organization.
While none of that looks good, it’s also not nearly enough to convict Slahi of any crime. So, he ends up at Guantanamo Bay, held without charge or hope of trial. Enter Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster), a lawyer-activist who takes Slahi’s case pro bono. This puts her on the wrong side of American sentiment, wherein Slahi must be guilty and should fry for his crimes.
On the other side of that coin is Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), the distinguished lawyer charged to prosecute the case. A genial, honest man, Couch lost a friend on one of the hijacked airliners and attends church with the man’s widow. He faces enormous pressure to shepherd the case to a speedy and satisfying conclusion. Couch and Hollander soon come to the same sobering conclusion: While this case has a crime and a suspect, most of the the facts and evidence have been carefully hidden away somewhere.
Even worse, Slahi has been brutalized by the “enhanced interrogations” of his captors. This includes days of sleep deprivation, waterboarding, and sexual assault. This is the strongest and most explosive aspect of the movie, as it unabashedly depicts just how awful this really was.
This film brought back the outrage I felt during this time. It still boggles my mind: What in the holy hell were George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld thinking? Torture is a notoriously unreliable way to extract information: Waterboard somebody enough times and they’ll tell you they shot J.R. Ewing to make it stop. And it’s inadmissible in court. And it serves as an enduring testament to how quickly our leaders will take this country’s most cherished values–our better angels–and stash them away in a drawer somewhere, all in the name of getting the job done. Only those guys didn’t get it done. They handed an even bigger, bloodier mess to their successors, all while Osama Bin Laden was still brazenly at large.
Hollander gets drawn into this sprawling, complex case for the moral high ground it provides: If a suspected terrorist can get good legal counsel, then that means the rest of us can, too. But, like every defense lawyer in every movie like this, Hollander becomes deeply committed by her client’s potential innocence. After all, Slahi isn’t just some crazed cave-dweller. He’s intelligent, charismatic, and worldly. Both Hollander and her young assistant (Shailene Woodley) become passionate advocates for Slahi’s release.
Foster is perfectly cast as the ballsy, brilliant lawyer. In a weird way, this film reminds me of her work in Contact, wherein she also played a woman possessed with fanatical determination, even when everyone around her rolled their eyes with contempt. As Couch, Cumberbatch shows us a thoughtful, mild-mannered man who must choose between telling people what they want to hear and showing them the undeniable truth. (Is there even such a thing as undeniable truth anymore?) Zachary Levi is also terrific as a CIA liaison who knows a lot that he would like to forget.
All that being said, this is Rahim’s movie. He delivers a brutal, fearless performance, as a man whose soul is broken, but not destroyed. Much like Hollander, we can’t help but be moved by his plight. I honestly don’t know why he wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award for his work.
The Mauritanian is a really good movie, but it’s not a perfect one. For all the force of its first two acts, and all the gravity of Rahim’s performance, it does lose momentum in its final third. Director Kevin Macdonald can’t resist turning up the inspirational music and supplying his actors with big speeches. The scenes at Guantanamo are so raw and real, it’s a little jarring when everything starts to feel like a heavily-scripted movie.
Don’t get it twisted: I’m not trying to steer you clear of The Mauritanian. (Even if that clunky title doesn’t suit the film.) Currently, there is an alarming movement within the United States to reshape our history into something tidy and aesthetically pleasing. Like any great power, there are blights on our resume, and deleting them from textbooks doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. This is an important story, and it needs to be heard. We can’t run from our darkest moments, if there is truly any hope left for the better angels of our nature.
129 min. R.