We’ll be telling stories about 9/11 for decades to come and, unfortunately, most of them will probably be as anodyne as Kevin Macdonald’s The Mauritanian. On the other hand, most of them probably won’t play around a central performance as good as Tahar Rahim’s portrait of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, the man from Mauritania, abducted by Uncle Sam in 2002 and held at Guantanamo Bay until 2016. Allegedly, Salahi advised members of various al Qaeda cells on training in Afghanistan, and in so doing facilitated the terror attacks of September 11th, 2001. Truthfully, if he did or he didn’t, the U.S. government had no case and no evidence and never charged him, which is a major jurisprudence party foul.
Salahi, of course, is innocent, and The Mauritanian spends much of its time with Rahim in interrogation rooms or isolated open-air spaces for compulsory recreational time, or speaking with Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), his pro bono defense attorneys, who represent him in part because the latter believes in his innocence and the former believes in habeas corpus. On the opposite side of the investigation stands Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), military prosecutor and close friend of one of the pilots who died on 9/11. He has a vendetta. Hollander has a cause. Ultimately they’re fighting for the same thing—justice, though they define “justice” differently—with Salahi caught in the middle as a plaything. Neither American really considers him beyond how he relates to their work: To Hollander he’s just another case, and to Couch he’s an evil fundamentalist mass murderer.
It’s fortunate for The Mauritanian that MacDonald and Rahim both see Salahi as an actual human person. Without that perspective, the film would not only be bland—and it is indeed about as appealing as plain toast—it’d be straight up offensive, a story about two high-powered Americans playing ping-pong with an innocent man’s life for their own unique reasons. Given that the U.S. eventually dropped all allegations against Salahi, and given that Judge James Robertson declared the “evidence” against him thin verging on translucent, the approach Macdonald takes is significantly less repellant: He splits the difference, borrowing from Salahi’s 2015 memoir Guantanamo Diary and stitching together his authorial recollections with standard-issue courtroom drama, in which Foster and Cumberbatch both stare stone-faced at briefs and respond to every setback and revelation met along the way with actorly consternation.
Somehow, neither Macdonald nor screenwriters M.B. Traven, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani can make anything dramatic out of the concept of Americans arguing on behalf of the rule of law. What a concept! Can you imagine? Lawyers observing facts, sifting through case materials, delving deep to find truth and order in determinedly disorderly circumstances. That Couch, a Christian with genuine Christian conviction, eventually walks away from the case on account of the draconian suffering inflicted upon Salahi during his stay in Gitmo, feels like a fantasy—and the film doesn’t even realize it. It just happens. The Mauritanian moves along as if nothing significant has occurred, and the moment dissipates. Even Cumberbatch’s furrowed brow and rumbling, authoritative voice can’t make it stick.
What does linger is Rahim, who gives Salahi interior and exterior humanity: He’s charming, humble—almost unfailingly polite until he’s pushed beyond his limits or broken down into a husk through systematic acts of torture. It’s probably true that much the same can be said about men who did provide support and resources to al Qaeda, and it’s also true that there’s more than one Mohamedou Ould Salahi in the history of American extrajudicial reprisals. The Mauritanian’s postscript indicates that of the hundreds held in Guantanamo, only a handful have actually been convicted by a military commission, and about half of those convictions have been overturned. In a different movie, Salahi is just a statistic. In Macdonald’s, he’s the heart—someone we’re actually given to care about by Rahim’s efforts in revealing the man behind the part.
It’s a waste that the rest of the picture isn’t equally revelatory. The Mauritanian plays by the numbers, hitting courtroom conspiracy drama beats dutifully but without any urgency. From the start, everyone on every side of the court is running out of time, and hitting their heads on brick walls of government silence, which, though drawn from real life, remains a well-worn genre cliché played too heavily by Macdonald’s direction. One nice shot in particular, an overhead of Hollander and Duncan staring down a field of redacted paperwork, gives visual punctuation to the amoral bureaucratic nightmare of post-9/11 interrogations: They’re caught in a sea of black bars on white sheets, totally askance at where to start and what they’ll find of value, if anything at all. But this kind of clever craftsmanship is missing elsewhere. It’s an unfortunate irony that a movie about saving Salahi must itself be saved by the man portraying him.
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Writers: M.B. Traven, Rory Haines, Sohrab Noshirvani
Starring: Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch, Shailene Woodley, Zachary Levi
Release Date: February 12, 2021
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.