This new film which details the mistreatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp has received some poor reviews. The Times found it bland, Little White Lies thought it was old news and about seventeen years too irrelevant, Empire Magazine said it was flat and formulaic and The Sun criticised it as forgettable and overly neutered. While I respect two of these publications I have to say that I strongly disagree. I will concede that it isn’t groundbreaking in its approach and maybe it could have come sooner than five years after the book it is based on but The Mauritanian has moments of real power. Also, after Obama pledged to close it twelve years ago and Trump promised its indefinite continuation four years ago, Guantanamo Bay is still open. It may run very differently to how it did under George W. Bush’s administration but this is still isn’t quite history so hasn’t quite fallen from relevance.
The movie tells the true story of Mohamedou Slahi who was taken for questioning in relation to al Qeada two months after 9/11 and was kept imprisoned without charge for almost a decade and a half. Tahar Rahim is excellent as Slahi and its one of those examples, like The Fighter and I Tonya, where you don’t realise quite how good the performance is until you see the real person they were playing over the credits. (Rahim, incidentally, is often talked of in connection to his César winning turn in A Prophet but my recommendation would be to search him out in 2014’s The Past.) Appearing alongside Rahim are Benedict Cumberbatch and Jodie Foster as the lawyers trying to condemn him and save him respectively. Foster has been off our screens for a while, only turning up in this and Hotel Artemis in the last seventeen years but she brings that gravitas right back. It is interesting to see her both in court and visiting a high profile detainee in prison again but while this is a very different movie to the ones that won her her two Oscars she is definitely that same actor.
Most of the plot does involve these performers talking over tables, which is what those reviews are possibly taking issue with, but this is never less than captivating when it’s these people. The strongest part of the narrative is when Cumberbatch’s Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch and Foster’s defence attorney Nancy Hollander are both reading the account of what Slahi suffered in Guantanamo, he in the official documentation and her from Slahi’s account. You see the tortures and assaults play out and it is effectively upsetting. Again, it seems that some film journalists feel this is nothing new but I’ve not seen this in cinema before and while I, like everybody, read the accounts and saw the news footage when in came out, there was stuff here that opened my eyes.
Director Kevin MacDonald may have made better movies (One Day in September, Touching the Void, The Last King of Scotland) but he’s also done worse ones (State of Play, Black Sea) and I think he has done here what was needed. Despite the subject matter don’t be afraid that The Mauritanian is an overly hard watch; it’s message is ultimately one of forgiveness and compassion and it is worth your time.
The Ripley Factor:
It is hard, from a feminist point of view, to be entirely comfortable with the roles Jodie Foster was given at the start of her career. Clearly we were not supposed to be okay with the prostitute she was playing at age twelve in Taxi Driver but her coquettish turn as Talulah in Bugsy Malone the same year doesn’t feel totally right either. Her appearance in the thankfully little known Italian Movie Beach House the following year is also all levels of inappropriate. None of this is on her though and since The Accused and The Silence of the Lambs, two parables of standing up to horrendous male violence, she has played a series of strong and brave women in a range of films that have been lifted by her involvement.
The Mauritanian adds to this catalogue of honest empowerment with the added element of it celebrating a real woman who stood up for truth, justice and the American way better than any superhero. The character of Nancy Hollander is presented as hard but compassionate and is a model of forbearance almost as much as Rahim’s Slahi.