Twenty years is a long time -- a span in which a life can move from inception to adulthood, youth to middle age, and middle years to elder. It also seems like enough time removed to stare unflinchingly at the horrors of 9/11… not just the ones that were committed upon America, but the ones we inflicted in the time after.
No, “The Mauritanian” is not an anti-American screed by Hollywood liberals. It fits more into the courtroom/crime procedural genre, closer to “The Verdict” or “Reversal of Fortune” than anything else. The difference is here the accused is Mohamedou Ould Salahi, a young man from the unpresuming country in northwest Africa who was accused of being the top recruiter for Al-Qaeda despite a lack of any hard evidence.
Indeed, if you love the U.S. judicial system and believe the rule of law is central to the foundations of our country, this movie is as patriotic as it gets.
Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch, an Oscar winner and nominee, play opposing lawyers who do not meet until rather late in the story. Tahar Rahim should get his own Academy Award recognition for playing Salahi, a man who endured imprisonment, psychological abuse and -- there’s no other word for it -- torture at the hands of U.S. military while a detainee at Guantanamo Bay.
You probably don’t know Salahi’s name; I didn’t. You may not be that familiar with the country where he comes from; I wasn’t.
But that actually helps the movie, by presenting his story without a pent-up backlog of biases or preconceptions. Director Kevin Macdonald (another Oscar winner for his documentary work) and screenwriters Michael Bronner, Rory Haines and Sohrab Hoshirvani attack the material as one man’s story, and then gradually broaden the scope as the legal implications grow deeper.
Foster plays Nancy Hollander, who takes the case on a pro bono basis, starting as a phone call for a friend to confirm that Salahi is a prisoner. She takes it on first simply because she wants to protect the right of habeas corpus; to her it’s almost immaterial if he’s guilty or not. But the deeper she scrapes, the harder the resistance grows to the truth coming out.
The feds are seeking the death penalty, so stakes are as high as they can be.
On the other side is Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Cumberbatch), a gung-ho Marine prosecutor assigned the case. An old-school patriot with a personal stake in the case -- a friend of his was aboard one of the planes that hit the Twin Towers -- he attacks the case with relish, at one point expressing a desire to stick the injection needle in Salahi’s arm himself… if he’s guilty.
And yet, both attorneys run into the same buzz saw: a lack of real evidence of Salahi’s wrongdoing. There are reams of summaries of his countless hours of interrogation, but no direct notes. For a while their stories run parallel without ever intersecting, Hollander filing suits and petitions and Couch taking things up the chain of the command.
The best parts of the film are the interviews in a dank cell between Salahi, Hollander and Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), a young lawyer brought in to help translate. They soon learn Salahi has learned English during his years in detainment, so her presence soon becomes more of a distraction. Woodley is basically left to just stand around asking counterfactual questions to help eke out plot information.
Hollander, a stern lawyer whose credo is “it’s not about what’s true, it’s what I can prove,” steadily becomes more invested in the case and treats Salahi as a person rather than just a set of facts. When she reads about his horrible treatment -- freezing cells, waterboarding, blasting music, forced sleeplessness, etc. -- we can see the human empathy grow in those icy eyes.
One of the things I like about Foster is that she chooses not to act in every movie that comes along, picking her projects so that Hollywood always needs her more than she needs Hollywood. It’s a good approach to life, and filmmaking.
This role is a good segue into “grand dame” parts a la Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren. (We should be so lucky.)
“The Mauritanian” can be tough movie to watch. But it’s a sobering, and energizing, experience for those who do.