Scottish filmmaker Kevin MacDonald is certainly in my book as, one of the most underrated directors working today. Directing the critically acclaimed films “Touching The Void” and “The Last King Of Scotland” (which Forest Whitaker took home the Best Actor Oscar). MacDonald has also dabbled in music documentaries “Marley” and “Whitney” to the thrillers “State Of Play” and “Black Sea”. MacDonald doesn’t make movies that are the same, connected by common themes nor does he use a common filmmaking style. You never quite know what MacDonald will direct next and what you’re in for, but the chances are that you’ll get an enthralling, riveting and suspenseful drama/thriller.
MacDonald is back after directing the recently released documentary “Life In The Day” with the based on the true story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi. A Mauritanian who had to fight for his freedom after being detained and imprisoned without charge by the U.S. Government and sentenced to Guantanamo Bay due to suspicion regarding his possible involvement in the devastating attack on 9/11.
In one of the most difficult titles to pronounce, “The Mauritanian” (try say that five times fast) is based on Slahi’s own bestselling 2015 memoir “Guantanamo Diary”, published while he was still incarcerated. The film puts focus on moments of Slahi’s initial detainment, his time at Guantanamo and finally the court case that surrounded him in the fight to set him free. Director Kevin MacDonald’s film is searing and brutally raw and while it’s occasionally formulaic. His film still manages to be a disturbingly effective legal political procedural thriller. The screenplay by Michael Bronner (under the pseudonym M.B. Traven), Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani does an expert job at making us question whether Slahi is actually guilty in helping coordinate the 9/11 attacks.
MacDonald’s film is closest to a CNN expose, while the writers make it pretty clear that there was something scandalous and un-American about the military personnel who were violating human rights by engaging in despicable torture tactics. All the while a legal system that turned its back on Slahi and hundreds of other Guantanamo Bay prisoners. What’s all the more scary is how Slahi’s case, is still relevant today.
In November of 2001, just two months after 9/11, Mohamedou Ould Slahi was attending a joyous wedding celebration in a tent by the beach in his home country of Mauritania in East Africa. When all of a sudden the local police arrive and order Slahi to come with them, to be questioned by the American authorities. Slahi is cooperative and friendly as he reassures his mother that nothing is wrong, but we can sense that this is not good for Slahi.
Becoming one of the government’s most wanted, Slahi was branded “The Al Qaeda Forrest Gump”. Slahi had phone calls linking him to the planning of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and a whole network of names that included Osama Bin Laden. Slahi will spend a decade and a half in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba. Having been repeatedly beaten, shackled, subjected to psychological, sexual abuse and is kept in extreme isolation. While never being officially charged with any crimes or let alone being convicted.
Slahi has defense attorney Nancy Hollander (played by Jodie Foster) on his side who takes an interest in his case. Hollander is joined by her young assistant Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley “Divergent”). With Slahi talking to the counsel, Hollander must battle against prosecuting attorney Stuart Couch (“Sherlock” star Benedict Cumberbatch) who wants to make sure that Slahi is not released and remains a captive. As more and more information is released, both Nancy and Stuart realize there is much more to the story of Slahi’s incarceration.
Tahar Rahim, who received recognition in 2009’s critically acclaimed “A Prophet”, puts humanity in Slahi while having to endure a place of utter inhumanity. This is a stunning showcase for the actor and a nice return to the movies after what has felt like a long time away from it. Rahim can easily shift between multiple languages, while looking equally vulnerable, complex and empathetic but is fueled by anger and fear. He keeps us guessing right up to the film’s gut punch ending if he is innocent or guilty. This is a performance that should have led him to the forefront this coming awards season, but was overlooked by the Academy.
Fighting her way through the military red tape with hair bobbed silver and her lips colored in a dark lipstick red is two time Oscar winner Jodie Foster in one of her career best roles. Her role as defense attorney Nancy Hollander landed her a Golden Globe nomination and she plays Nancy Hollander as a steely warrior. Foster as Nancy is a force to be reckoned with, even when she is being criticized or attacked for defending a man that many believed to be one of the terrorists behind September 11th.
Foster is perfectly cast and her on-screen relationship with not only Rahim but with Benedict Cumberbatch and Shailene Woodley are just as impressive. Benedict Cumberbatch (also a producer) is excellent as always, but struggles with his Colonel Sanders southern fried accent. Shailene Woodley as Hollander’s young protege and a buffed-up Zachary Levi (most likely filming for “Shazam”) plays a secretive government agent are given little to work with beyond the cliches of the genre.
“The Mauritanian” has been nominated for BAFTAs, Golden Globes and Critic’s Choice awards, but has been completely snubbed by the Oscars. Then again, since it tells the true story of America’s attempt to cover up its own mistakes, it’s no wonder that the Academy has chosen to ignore “The Mauritanian”. While MacDonald takes a more standard filmmaking approach. His use of the changing aspect ratios for the films scenes in Guantanamo is a smart creative choice. MacDonald mimics the look of a 16mm film and are framed to feel claustrophobic like the prison cell Slahi is detained in.
“The Mauritanian” is that unique American movie, that attempts to indict those responsible for a post 9/11 belligerence. But MacDonald plays more in line with last year’s Amazon Prime original film “The Report”. It’s equipped with a smart script and two exceptional performances from Tahar Rahim and Jodie Foster. MacDonald keeps the film moving like an old-fashioned legal drama that has a lot on it’s mind and isn’t afraid to tell it like it is.
While his writers withholds the information so they can reveal the pieces of the puzzle and any new details, when it’s necessary. This helps us to play detective to figure out if Slahi is guilty of the crimes he’s been accused of? More importantly does it justify the years of torture he endured with beatings, threats of rape, sexual humiliation, stress positions, sleep deprivation and water boarding? In the epilogue we get to see the real-life Slahi who serenades us with Bob Dylan’s “The Man In Me”. Given everything we’ve just witnessed and seen him go through, it’s astonishing to see him happy, healthy and finally have a full life. MacDonald closes by telling us that 40 prisoners remain in Guantánamo Bay, with nearly 800 people held there. Astonishingly only five were successfully convicted of any crimes at all and “The Mauritanian” is here to tell us that attention must be paid.
GRADE: ★★★★☆ (4 out of 5)