‘The Mauritanian’ Gives Guantánamo Bay Detainee Mohamedou Ould Salahi the Legal Thriller Treatment

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The Mauritanian (CREDIT: STX Films)

Starring: Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zachary Levi, Saamer Usmani

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Running Time: 129 Minutes

Rating: R, Mainly for a Scene of Intense Torture

Release Date: February 12, 2021

In the 2000s and early 2010s, films that grappled with 9/11 and its aftermath tended to be combat thrillers, reaching an apotheosis in terms of cultural impact with 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty. Now the focus has turned toward the War on Terror’s legal repercussions. 2019’s The Report took a deep dive into the massive amount of paperwork detailing the CIA’s use of post-9/11 torture, and now The Mauritanian comes along to narrow its attention on the particular case of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, who was detained at Guantánamo Bay withou charge for more than a decade. His story has been told before via the likes of 60 Minutes and Salahi’s own memoir, but even if you come in to this movie completely cold (as I more or less did), it’s immediately obvious that we are witnessing a miscarriage of justice.

There’s essentially zero doubt at any point in The Mauritanian about Salahi’s innocence. We’re not exactly told this outright, but we might as well be. With the guarded way that Tahar Rahim plays Salahi, there is a sense that he might be susceptible to being tricked into thinking that he has abetted terrorist activity. But these are merely survival tactics, as he mostly keeps his head down and says what is demanded of him when he absolutely has to so as to stay alive and sane enough to get by. The main source of the movie’s tension then is how much our patience is tested: just how long – in real time and movie time – will Salahi be detained? Because if you know anything about Guantánamo Bay, you know it’s probably going to take a while. Luckily, he has a couple of competent lawyers on his case in the form of Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), and with Foster giving off Hall of Fame-level tenacity vibes, we can feel confident that there will be a happy ending eventually.

Salahi’s story is undoubtedly compelling, but in terms of how it works as cinema, it’s not an automatic slam dunk. It mostly avoids indulging in the shoutiest excesses of miscarriage-of-justice legal procedurals, but it perhaps swings too far in the opposite direction, opting for a low-key approach that’s content to mostly just hum along. Then there are the torture scenes, which is something I would happily never see re-created on screen ever again. That’s not to say that it’s always absolutely wrong to portray torture; the ethics of doing so are certainly debatable. But aesthetically, it tends to be jarring and unnecessary, very much so in this case. Still, despite my misgivings, I’m glad that movies like The Mauritanian exist. The value they offer by getting these stories out to a wide audience generally outweigh my trepidations.

The Mauritanian is Recommended If You Like: The due process of law, Un-redacting the redactions

Grade: 3 out of 5 Forced Confessions

This Is a Movie Review: Hotel Artemis

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CREDIT: Matt Kennedy/Global Road Entertainment

I give Hotel Artemis 2.5 out of 5 Rules: https://uinterview.com/reviews/movies/hotel-artemis-movie-review-an-intriguing-premise-can-only-carry-this-thriller-so-far/