When Kevin Macdonald set out to make “The Mauritanian,” the director must have found himself identifying to some degree with defense attorney Nancy Hollander. The lawyer, played here by Jodie Foster, braved insult and scorn when she took up the case of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who was arrested in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. At the time (and likely to this day), many in the U.S. military believed Slahi to be involved in aiding and perhaps even recruiting the hijackers who flew the planes into the World Trade Center. He had confessed as much under torture — but then, who wouldn’t?
For Hollander, taking Slahi’s side was an extremely unpopular position, and one that Macdonald — a Scottish filmmaker who has been repeatedly drawn to hot-button political topics and controversial characters (“One Day in September,” “The Last King of Scotland”) — embraces with a righteous fervor. No one can accuse Macdonald, who is not American, of being unpatriotic, though they can certainly reject a movie (or else avoid it altogether) that goes against their own sense of how the U.S. military should have responded to 9/11.
The director’s challenge then is to offer Slahi’s side of the story, which he opts to do without necessarily delving into the complicated past that gave American authorities reason to suspect him. There are references to a phone call he received from Osama bin Laden’s line and an open history with al-Qaida, which had been fighting on the same side as the Americans when Slahi was affiliated with the organization, but the script — credited to Rory Haines, Sohrab Noshirvani and M.B. Traven (the latter a pseudonym for investigative journalist Michael Bronner) — clearly doesn’t share the U.S. government’s conviction that its highest-value detainee was handled appropriately.
“The Mauritanian” is a tough movie, and not an easy one to enjoy, marking the polar opposite of the gung-ho fight-terrorism-at-any-cost attitude of post-9/11 productions such as “24” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” in which the ends justify the means. But it fits within other well-established Hollywood genres — most notably, those that fancy themselves a check on government malfeasance — and as such, “The Mauritanian” delivers the shock, outrage and ultimate comeuppance that audiences expect from cynical anti-corruption sagas like “Rendition” and “The Report.”
Slahi is beaming when we meet him in the opening scene, attending a Mauritanian wedding ceremony interrupted by his arrest. Despite all he endures over the coming years, Slahi never loses the capacity to smile. This disarmingly upbeat son/husband is played by French actor Tahar Rahim, whose sleeping-tiger performance in the 2009 prison saga “A Prophet” positioned him as a young Robert De Niro — a serious, sweet-looking actor with impressive depth and the capacity to hide his characters’ true intentions.
Rahim has continued to impress over the subsequent decade, but remains largely unknown to American viewers. This allows for a shrewd casting opportunity on Macdonald’s part: While audiences (conditioned to being presented with Muslim actors as potential terrorists) project the usual Hollywood-instilled biases upon Slahi at first, the director has lined up one of the best actors of his generation to play the role — a character we’re never meant to fully know, and yet are invited to identify with all the same, enough to recognize that no one deserves to be held for eight years without being formally charged with a crime. No matter how complex Slahi might be, the film argues that his situation is simple: Unless proven guilty, he must be freed.
Playing the woman who dares confront this presumed monster, Foster brings different associations to her part. Naturally, some will be reminded of “The Silence of the Lambs,” in which she comes face-to-face with a criminal mastermind, although “The Mauritanian” doesn’t encourage the idea that she is being manipulated. Rather, it is Hollander who reaches out to Slahi, whose presence at Guantanamo Bay is so secret that it’s a Kafkaesque task just to confirm that he’s “not not there.”
Guantanamo Bay, we realize, serves as a kind of black hole in the American justice system, a lawless void into which people are thrown without any notice being shared with their loved ones — or as Hollander puts it, “They built this place out of the reach of the court for a reason.” It is her mission to bring constitutional protection to this prison, where “special measures” for interrogating prisoners were approved by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld just prior to Slahi being turned over to military intelligence.
“You haven’t seen what I’ve seen,” rigidly by-the-book military prosecutor Lt. Col. Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch, who filmed his own interminable-detention drama, “The Courier,” a year earlier) tells Hollander over beers near the Gitmo gift shop, but his words just hang in the air. Of course she hasn’t seen the evidence Couch has. It’s highly classified, making it all but impossible for Hollander and her associate, Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), to defend a client whom the military hasn’t formally accused of a crime.
Macdonald keeps focusing on this point: the principle of habeas corpus, whereby a prisoner is entitled to appear before a judge and be informed of the reason for his arrest. Over the end credits, the film tells us that of the 779 prisoners detained at Guantanamo Bay, only eight have been convicted; the cases against three were overturned on appeal. What many of these men endured was unconscionable (that’s precisely the sentiment that motivates Couch’s character arc in the film), but these suspects were hardly chosen at random, and the movie makes no allowance for the wartime nature of attitudes post-9/11. Many feared that more terrorist attacks were imminent.
“The Mauritanian” starts slow, allowing room for audience skepticism toward Slahi as it braids multiple timelines to somewhat disorienting effect, intercutting how he was treated in military custody with Hollander’s crusade to liberate him. But the story gains momentum as it goes, and by the end, it’s positively gripping. In tough-guy American television series, characters like Jack Bauer use extreme tactics to get fast, accurate information, but that’s not what Macdonald shows happening here. From waterboarding to forced sexual intercourse, the methods are meant to break the prisoners, but they may just as effectively destroy our confidence in the system.
I’ll never forget how a friend passed out during the torture scene of Macdonald’s “The Last King of Scotland” (when James McAvoy’s body is shown hanging from steel hooks), and yet, the military’s treatment of Slahi is much harder to take. Over the course of the film’s too-long two-hour-plus running time, we come to empathize with this man, whom Rahim plays with uncommon gentleness. Most people in his shoes would be outraged. Instead, Slahi prays, he performs his ablutions, he escapes into flashbacks about his wife and family, and he tries to make any kind of connection with his captors. Most surprising, he pardons. Imagine that: A film about vengeance, in which the commander in chief calls for “rough justice,” argues that the way to escape the cycle of terror is not with force but forgiveness.