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The Mauritanian

After 9/11, the United States sought to round up all the bad guys responsible for the attacks and bring them to Guantanamo Naval Air Station in Cuba. Their fates there were to be determined.

Among the detainees: a Mauritanian, Mohamedou Slahi (Tahar Rahim). In the film The Mauritanian, Nancy Hollander (Jody Foster) is the Albuquerque-based attorney who is drafted to defend Slahi. Assisting her is Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley). Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), a Marine, is the government attorney assigned to prosecute Slahi. 

But what is the charge against him? The film, based on Slahi’s book Guantanamo Diary, reveals the nuanced form of jurisprudence practiced by the U.S. toward the detainees. The scope of the 9/11 attacks made the nation less concerned about the rights of those accused of perpetrating such horror and more concerned about meting out punishment.

Slahi’s initial meetings with inquisitors at Gitmo are shown to be civil, sort of the “good cop” approach. Slahi, as presented in the film, does not appear to have the temperament one might expect of someone accused of being part of the Al Qaeda terrorist conspiracy. 

Slahi is slow to warm to the Hollander-Woodley team’s effort to obtain justice for him. But as their visits continue and his frustration builds, he comes to appreciate their work on his behalf.

Did the opposing barristers Hollander and Couch actually first meet in Cuba at the Gitmo airport or is that an invention of the screenwriters? Doesn’t matter. It serves to show that the two, while sharing beers in the airport bar, are steadfast in their beliefs regarding Slahi.

Both the Hollander-Duncan team and Couch have difficulty gaining access to documents that might help them in their respective cases. When they do finally get it, some of the info is so heavily redacted as to be useless.

The telling of Slahi’s story by director Kevin McDonald progresses at a modest pace before concluding bombastically with revelations of some missing elements of the narrative. 

Jody Foster as the stern-faced, doggedly committed advocate is at her best and, in the wake of her recent Golden Globes win, may be Oscar nomination-worthy. Her bright red lipstick gives her a more mature look compared to some of her prior roles. Cumberbatch brings one of the most authentic Southern accents I’ve heard in a while to his portrayal of Couch. (Sorry, but as a native Alabamian, I often cringe at the terrible attempts by some actors to sound Southern.
Especially Brits.)

Rahim brings a multi-dimensional performance as a man who is, at times, charming but who may also have been involved in the terrible events of 9/11. To cast an unknown in the title role was a risky move, but Rahim shows it to have been a good choice.

The weakest aspect of The Mauritanian: its title! Hard to believe that that’s the best they could come up with. 

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