Review by Cat Earley
In a climate of increasing political tension and particularly aggressive surges of nationalism, the decision to adapt the story of a man who spent 14 years imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay is a commendable one. From the very beginning, Kevin Macdonald’s The Mauritanian (2021) is faced with the impossible task of providing a nuanced criticism of the ethics of the post-9/11 American justice system whilst also managing to develop its many characters and make us empathise with their relationship to the narrative. Is this a task it succeeded at? Not quite, and yet despite its overambition, the film still managed to come together to become something not only meaningful and impactful, but also needed.
The Mauritanian chronicles the story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim), a Muslim man detained in Guantanamo Bay for suspected involvement in the 9/11 terror attack. Despite having no charges filed against him, Mohamedou must seek the help of defence attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) in order to gain access to a fair trial, a right that is supposedly a part of the bedrock of the United States of America. The film often struggles to cope with a narrative responsibility this large, but despite its clumsy efforts to fulfil its duty on a wider scale, there is true artistry is how the film approaches some of its smaller scenes: an American flag flying above the barbed wire fence of the facility. The squalid portions of the detainees contrasted with the lavish meals of the prosecutors who are keeping them there. Mohamedou standing in the yard and chatting through a covered fence with a man who is his friend but who he has never seen. The imagery seen here is born of a film that, although ham-fisted at times, truly cares about its subject matter and feels incredibly truly human in how it approaches its characters.
Although we never see their faces, the presence and the pain of the people still imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay echo across The Mauritanian, prompting the audience to question if anyone truly deserves that fate. The film perhaps presents its thesis most clearly in Mohamedou’s final speech: “If you have a problem with the United States of America, you will have that problem forever.”