Mohamedou Ould Slahi is one of the many prisoners housed at Guantanamo Bay. He’s been there for years suffering horrendous abuse in inhumane conditions. But he’s not been charged with a crime. So why is he there?
Plucked from his home in Mauritania, Mohamedou is connected, through cousins, to Osama Bin Laden. And that’s enough for the US government. Suspicion, hearsay and the evidence of a single phone call long ago.
Guantanamo Bay is hardly a place that offers much hope but Mohamedou finally gets some through the surprise defence of Nancy Hollander and associate Teri Duncan. They aren’t interested in whether he’s guilty but how he’s being held. On the other side, however, is Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch, charged with finding evidence to convict Mohamedou for helping to orchestrate 9/11. Let legal battle commence.
Like me, you might have been drawn in by the star-studded cast and prospect of Jodie Foster lining up against Benedict Cumberbatch in the court room. Yet it’s Tahar Rahim who truly steals the show. It’s his heartfelt performance and anguish that draws you into the future for Mohamedou. Even in times of drastic trouble, he brings a lightness and smile that invites you in.
Sadly, it’s the defence team of Jodie Foster and, in particular, Shailene Woodley that feel the most under utilized, the latter seeming like a plot device than a character. We never truly get under the skin to identify their emotional reasons. We all know what Mohamedou has at stake but what does his defence?
As the legal process unfolds, The Mauritanian sits on the fence as to whether it’s a film about the abuse that Mohamedou suffers as a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay and the grey moral area surrounding those trying to defend him or those defending the abuse. Ultimately, that indecision stops The Mauritanian from truly excelling past a middle of the road drama.
If you’ve sought out this film and story, you’re likely already very aware of the history and controversies surrounding Guantanamo Bay. While that story is absolutely one that needs to be known and taken seriously, I couldn’t help but feel the abuse and torture detailed in The Mauritanian is everything we already know.
Director Kevin MacDonald is no newcomer to the grey areas of morality having helmed the award winning Last King of Scotland and political thriller State of Play. Those questions around how and why someone would defend a prisoner accused of terrorism as well as how someone would defend a system they know is morally corrupt are all questions I’d have liked to have seen explored in greater depth. It feels like an opportunity missed.
The Mauritanian is certainly worth a watch for the fantastic performance of Tahar Rahim and to know the story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi but, as a film and drama, it’s sadly, quite by the numbers.
By Jordan Barrett
Available to stream on Amazon Prime