See It or Skip It
See It: The Mauritanian is a nerve-provoking legal drama with a stellar cast. One of them is a promising newcomer and the story itself is gripping and full of intensity.
Nationality blame is a constant cycle. You could be the nicest person in the world but still have to live life being seen as untrustworthy solely because of where you come from. Some are persecuted with cold looks and verbal slurs while others are persecuted by a higher power. The Mauritanian is the true story of such a persecution, a persecution that is still ongoing.
The first time we see Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim), he's moments away from having everything taken away. Without charge or trial, he's taken from his home and imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay by the U.S. government who alleges he's working with al Qaeda. America Defense Attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) take him on as a pro bone client around the same time military prosecutor, Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) is hired to secure Salahi’s stay in Guantanamo.
What's interesting about the four performances is that you can gather that each character's perspective is always in plain sight and yet, they're all fighting to achieve the same thing. They started off fighting because they believe in what they're doing but at some point, you see that they're not fighting but wrestling. Wrestling to stay focused, wrestling to gather evidence, and wrestling to hold themselves together. Jodie Foster’s, Hollander initially approaches her case like a statue approaches people walking by it. The statue is as still as a hawk but also one step ahead of everyone else. She knows how the game works and she's not surprised when those higher up stray from the rules.
Shailene Woodley’s Teri is not as accustomed to this. She has a moral standard that's higher than Hollanders and doesn't fall into her “it doesn't matter if he's guilty or innocent, this is our job, that's why we’re doing this” demeanor. Teri and Hollander’s different outlooks on their goal lead to a falling out halfway through the film in a scene that asks hard questions about what we expect of people. For Woodley’s sake, I as an audience would have liked to keep her onscreen longer than she was but the toxicity of her work environment made sense for her character's departure.
Cumberbatch’s Couch isn't a destructive person but he absolutely works with those who destroy others. He’s very convincing as someone who has no doubts whatsoever about what he's doing but I could just tell he had that gut feeling that says something's not right. Uncovering fabricated evidence is the final straw for him and it would be nice if everyone had it in them to swallow their politics and do the right thing when you find out the truth and call it the truth and then do the right thing.
Tahar Rahim is the crown jewel of The Mauritanian. Had there not been footage of the real Salahi at the end of the film, I would not have believed Rahim’s work to be accurate. Surely, someone who’s been through what he has can't have it in them to have the level of faith that they do but also the cheerfulness and friendly warmth Rahim captures so tenderly. He does though - it is his essence - and scenes of torture are all the more torturous for it. In the film, it is always harder to watch abuse inflicted on someone you've come to appreciate, who is no longer a stranger.
The Mauritanian is no courtroom drama but it has that spark and spice sprinkled into its atmosphere that legal dramas like The Verdict and Primal Fear tend to have. The moral questions in films like this are only nerve provoking because of the answers we might find and The Mauritanian is about the continuation of striking those questions down like lightning bolts. I also feel the need to point out that I literally just saw this film at AMC in Boston and it was the first time I'd been to a film in a year. The rush I get from the movie-going experience all came flooding back to me and I remember why I've been missing it so much. That classical cinematic beauty of sitting in the dark, there's just no words for that, and The Mauritanian was just the film to pull me back in after the nightmare that is covid. See The Mauritanian and long live the cinema.
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