Courtroom drama 'The Mauritanian' a tough look at who we are
"The Mauritanian" - ★ ★ ★
Whenever something really bad or politically embarrassing occurs in the United States, recent politicians have raced to invoke the popular response, "This isn't who we are."
Kevin Macdonald's "The Mauritanian" -- and other fact-based features and documentaries like it -- soberly remind us, "Yes, this IS who we are."
"The Mauritanian" will never be mistaken for a great movie. Its lengthy legal proceedings drag along, and not even Benedict Cumberbatch's superbly crafted southern drawl or Jodie Foster's committed portrait of defense attorney Nancy Hollander can take up the dramatic slack.
But French actor Tahar Rahim, tasked with anchoring Macdonald's sometimes rough-to-witness drama, provides us with just enough mystery and empathy to keep us connected.
Rahim plays Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who spent 14 years as a prisoner at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, despite never being charged with a crime.
At the time, U.S. military officials believed Slahi had helped or even recruited the hijackers who flew jets into the World Trade Center.
Why wouldn't they think him to be guilty? Slahi confessed to the crimes.
But he did so after horrific torture. Or "special measures," as officials call them in this movie, based on the best-selling memoir "Guantánamo Diary" by Slahi.
Hollander, played by Foster as a sort of older, legal-eagle version of Clarice Starling, runs into the typical classified red tape that prevents her from mounting a strong case for releasing her never-charged client.
The military's prosecutor, a by-the-book Lt. Col. Stuart Couch (Cumberbatch), sympathizes with Hollander (they even drink beers together at a Gitmo tourist shop), but remains adamant about Slahi's guilt.
"The Mauritanian" is at best standard-issue courtroom fare, and it wisely withholds its most visceral scenes for near the end, when Macdonald and editor Larry Siems construct a montage of the enhanced interrogation techniques used on Slahi in what can best be described as torture porn.
Is this who we are, the movie asks?
Still, "The Mauritanian" remains a hopeful movie, for it reminds us that even when our institutions falter or fail, virtuous and just individuals remain within.
And they make all the difference.
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Starring: Tahar Radim, Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch, Shailene Woodley
Directed by: Kevin Macdonald
Other: A STXfilms release. In select theaters. Rated R for language, violence. 129 minutes