The horrors of 9/11 and the clamor to bring those responsible for the attacks to justice dominated much of the news in the early 2000s. Few people not in the know of inner government workings were aware of the lengths the Bush administration was going to extract information, including holding people without charges for years at a prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
One of those people, Mohamedu Slahi (Tahar Rahim), is at the center of the new film, The Mauritanian. Suspected of recruiting 9/11 hijackers while living in Germany, Slahi was arrested in his home country of Mauritania in November 2001. He was moved to various locations before being taken to Guantanamo Bay in 2005.
It’s at this point that the film picks up his story when lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) learns how long he’s been held without charges and decides to take his case. She and her associate, Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), take multiple trips to Cuba to meet with Slahi, and in between, try to navigate the oft-impenetrable legal maze that the government has surrounding all detainees at that particular prison.
Directed by Kevin Macdonald and written by Michael Bronner, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani, the film has a delicate balance it must maintain. It has to lay out a clear case that any evidence tying Slahi to the planning of 9/11 was circumstantial, at best, while understanding that the wounds from the attacks remain deep almost 20 years later, and they shouldn’t be dismissed.
The filmmakers tread this fine line well, focusing mostly on how things don’t add up on the U.S. government’s side. This argument is helped by the character of Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), a Marine lawyer tasked with prosecuting Slahi. Despite having access to more information than the defense attorneys, Couch is shown to be equally stymied by the government’s levels of secrecy.
The legal specifics of Slahi’s case can be hard to understand at times, even if the specific idea of habeus corpus – which requires that a person under arrest be brought before a judge to determine whether he or she must stay in jail or not – is straightforward. Macdonald and his team parse it well without dumbing things down. They also smartly lean into the emotional impact the case has on all involved to prove the point that there were shades of gray all over it.
Rahim and Foster are the stars of the film, and they make the most of their time on screen. Rahim is a French actor whose previous work has mostly been in that language, but he proves himself to be as versatile as anybody in this role. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen Foster in as meaty a role as this, and she shows that her Oscar-winning skills have not deserted her. Woodley and Cumberbatch do well, although Cumberbatch is saddled with a Southern accent that can be a bit jarring considering he normally gets to work in his normal British accent.
Those responsible for the atrocities on 9/11 deserved to be held accountable, but The Mauritanian is proof that there were plenty of mistakes made in the course of seeking that justice. The depth of both its story and performances make it a worthy awards contender even amongst stiff competition.
The Mauritanian is currently playing in select theaters. It will debut on premium video on demand on March 2.