The Mauritanian

Review by Willard Manus

The fall-out from 9/11 is the controversial subject of
THE MAURITANIAN, the prize-winning film starring Jodie Foster and Tahar Rahim, directed by Kevin Macdonald.

Based on the memoir ”Guantanamo Diary” by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, the film depicts the days following 9/11 when the USA, enraged by the sudden and horrific attack on the World Trade Center, sought to arrest and punish those who might have taken part in the plot.

Slahi (powerfully portrayed by Rahim) was a young Mauritanian Moslem who was radicalized when Russia invaded Afghanistan and turned it into a Soviet satellite. Slahi fought with the Moujhadeen against the Russians, alongside fellow volunteers from Al-Queda, some of whom were later involved in the 9/11 plot.

This connection resulted in his being placed on the USA’s wanted list. He was eventually tracked down and arrested by army intelligence officers, who then proceeded to interrogate him.
Later Slahi was sent to Guantanamo Bay and imprisoned there. No formal charges were made against him, though, and he languished in Gitmo for many years, in a kind of limbo (along with dozens of other suspected Al-Queda operatives).

When the ACLU lawyer Nancy Hollander (the impressive Foster) heard of his situation, she volunteered to represent him when his case finally came up for trial. Much of THE MAURITANIAN deals with the explosive relationship between attorney and client.

Each was under extreme pressure. Slahi had been abused physically and mentally during his long years of incarceration, turned into a kind of caged animal, full of resentment and fury. Hollander had been severely criticized by friend and foe alike for her decision to represent a man who apparently had taken part in the murder of 3000 New Yorkers. She also had to deal with Slahi’s hatred and mistrust. But patiently, stubbornly, she fought to win him over, convince him of her loyalty and sincerity.
The film’s subplot involves the U.S. army prosecutor (well played by Benedict Cumberbatch), who has a crisis of conscience when he discovers that the government’s case against Slahi was tainted, packed with lies and treachery.

THE MAURITANIAN works on several levels. It dramatizes the fight for justice and fair play in a time of political hysteria and blood-lust. It also paints a vivid portrait of two hostile characters who eventually come to understand and respect each other. Above all, THE MAURITANIAN shows that the human spirit is stronger than prison bars.