‘The Mauritanian’ Review

September 11, 2001 will be always remembered in history books and in the memories of those who were there or watched the horrifying events unfold on television. As Americans, we were stunned and felt vulnerability for the first time in years. Also as Americans, we demanded justice for those responsible. In The Mauritanian, Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September) working from a script by co-writers Michael Bronner, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani, brings us the true story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, based on his best-selling 2015 memoir, Guantanamo Diary.

Tahar Rahim (so good in A Prophet, 2009) stars as Salahi, and we first see him in November 2001 as he’s returned from Germany to Mauritania for a family wedding. He’s told, “the Americans want to talk to you,” as he’s taken into custody. The movie skips to 2005 where we find defense attorney Nancy Hollander (2-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster) and her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) in the courtroom. These two are crusaders for the law, and take on the case of Salahi, who has bounced first from a prison in Jordan and now to Guantanamo Bay.

Four years with no hearing, no trial, and no charges brought against him. The film jumps around from Salahi in Gitmo, to the two sides prepping their cases: Hollander for the defense, and Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) for the military. Couch had a friend on one of the 9/11 planes, and he’s instructed that this is a death penalty case – the only outcome that will deliver justice to the American people. Macdonald includes flashbacks to Salahi’s arrival at Gitmo, and even further back (1988) to his earning a scholarship in Germany. We also see the reenactment of the documented torture and “enhanced interrogation” procedures used against Salahi. It’s difficult to watch even these snippets of what he endured.

It’s 2009 before a judge even hears Salahi’s case, and 7 more years before he’s released. A total of 14 years in captivity with no charges, on top of the well-documented torture. Was Mohamedou Ould Salahi in some way responsible for the terrorist act of September 11, 2001? Did he recruit others to join the cause? The fact that we don’t really know the answers goes to the heart of what went wrong at Gitmo, and how the American need for justice caused a horrific detour in the legal process.

Unlike some, I have no issues with “agenda movies,” and it seems as though director Macdonald set out to make this one. The problem is that the multiple pieces and characters are just too much to juggle for one film. At times, it seems to highlight Hollander as a crusader. Other times it wants us to understand the struggles of Couch. And then there are times when the attention is on Salahi. The fragmented approach leaves us lacking in all aspects, especially for teasing a courtroom drama that never occurs. The actual footage included at the conclusion leaves us wondering whether the intention all along was to tug on our heartstrings, rather than expose the wrongs that transpired.