From Aug. 4, 2002 to Oct. 17, 2016, Mohamedou Ould Salahi was held at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp in Cuba. During this time, the Mauritanian-born Salahi was never charged with a crime, though the United States tried. They wanted to connect Salahi with al-Qaida, accusing him of being the groups’ top recruiter. But the best they could come up with was a phone call made to Salahi from Osama bin Laden’s phone, and that Ramzi bin al-Shibh—the “20th hijacker” on 9/11—once stayed the night at Salahi’s Berlin apartment.
Neither of those leads amounted to much. But following the attacks on Sep. 11, 2001, the U.S. wasn’t looking for a lot, just enough.
“Someone has to pay,” one intelligence agent says.
“Someone or anyone?” the prosecutor asks.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays that prosecutor, Lt. Col. Stuart Couch, and the movie is as much his as it is Salahi’s, played by Tahar Rahim—though the movie is named after the latter.
Directed by Kevin Macdonald, The Mauritanian is based on Salahi’s imprisonment and torture at the hands of the U.S. military, from Salahi’s memoir, Guantánamo Bay, published in 2015. Nancy Hollander (Jodi Foster) and Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) fill out the rest of the roster as Salahi’s defense.
Piqued by information from a colleague that Salahi was being detained without charge, Hollander and Duncan take the pro bono case because they can tell an injustice is at hand. They might not be sold on Salahi’s innocence, but they know his constitutional rights are being violated. “I’m not just defending him,” Hollander tells Couch. “I’m defending the rule of law.”
Couch will come to the same conclusion in another line, equally written but with a little more zing: “We both took an oath to uphold the Constitution, which is miles away at this point.”
A not insignificant aspect of The Mauritanian involves the awakening of Couch’s consciousness. Early in the movie, he shares beers with Hollander in Guantánamo Bay’s gift shop—you read that right—when Hollander speculates on the location of the camp in Cuba, far from the reach of the U.S. courts. At this point in the movie, Couch thinks only of security: The largest minefield to the north, shark-infested waters to the south. No chance of escape. Later he realizes the location isn’t so much for the inmates: It’s for the wardens.
The abuses of what happened at Guantánamo are well known and well covered. Couch’s awakening plays dangerously close to that story. Thankfully, The Mauritanian has Rahim to emotionally anchor a story that threatens to spin off into speeches and lectures at any moment. His story plays out mostly in flashback—which Macdonald and cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler capture in boxy, low-grade video footage. It gives the image a sickening coldness, an inelegant quality fitting of Salahi’s humiliation and torture.
Rahim excels in these scenes. He makes you hurt but also glints with enough optimism to suggest he’ll make it through the other side a stronger man. Foster is equally steadfast in her scenes: Her character starts the movie knowing exactly where she stands and then follows through. Woodley does well with what little time she is given, and even buried behind a thick Southern accent, Cumberbatch gives a convincing performance of a soldier who realizes he can no longer follow his commander in good consciousness.
Yet, they’re not enough to bring The Mauritanian out of the box the movie seems confident to confine itself to—ditto for the filmmaking, which starts distractingly flashy before settling down into appropriate for the proceedings. But the whole thing still comes across like a good dish that just needs a little bit of acid to liven things up. At least the meal’s satisfying.
The Mauritanian (2021)
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Written by Michael Bronner, Rory Haines, Sohrab Noshirvani
Based on a screen story by Michael Bronner
Produced by Adam Ackland, Michael Bronner, Leah Clarke, Benedict Cumberbatch, Christine Holder, Mark Holder,
Beatriz Levin, Lloyd Levin, Branwen Prestwood Smith
Starring: Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch, Shailene Woodley, Stevel Marc, Zachary Levi
STX Entertainment, Rated R, Running time 129 minutes, Available via Premium On Demand starting March 2, 2021.