Tahar Rahim Delivers a Powerful Performance in Gripping Guantanamo Bay Thriller

by Hassan Ilahi

Torture is a controversial tactic that has always been confidentially covered up in U.S. history. The CIA has long been accused of torturing innocent individuals for their suspected relations to 9/11. However, few cases of false accusation are as well-known today as Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s detainment. A Mauritania native, Slahi spent 14 years in Guantanamo Bay without charges of crime. Not only did Slahi’s merciless treatment violate constitutional rights, but it exposed the CIA’s wrongdoings. Despite his undeniable innocence, not until 2016 did Slahi finally become clear of charges. Sadly, Slahi’s detainment hasn’t altered a prison that remains cruel in its conditions today. Why did an innocent man spend 14 years imprisoned for crimes he didn’t commit?

The scandalous truth behind the CIA’s top-secret torture cover-up is insightfully investigated in Kevin Macdonald’s latest film The Mauritanian. An informative, gripping and well-researched political thriller, it dramatizes America’s post-9/11 paranoia. With his fourteenth feature, Kevin Macdonald has crafted an authentic account of Slahi’s Guantanamo experiences. Packed with spellbinding cinematography, engrossing storytelling and phenomenal performances, it is an admirable docudrama. Although The Mauritanian is undeniably unforgettable, ultimately it isn’t a flawless film. It is inconsistently paced, and lacks compelling character development. Nonetheless, it offers enlightening entertainment that will satisfy fans of investigative dramas.

Based on true events, The Mauritanian follows an innocent convict’s fight for freedom against a prejudiced government. Tahar Rahim stars in the title role as Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a tormented prisoner held in Guantanamo Bay without trial. All hope seems to be lost for Slahi, until hard-working defense lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) decides to fight for his case. However, what starts as one individual’s case soon becomes large-scale when torture evidence is exposed. As Nancy uncovers shocking conspiracies, she questions Slahi’s terrorism charges.

Writer/director Kevin Macdonald is no stranger to themes of terrorism. Ever since he earned worldwide recognition with One Day in September in 1999, Macdonald has become an extraordinary Scottish documentarian. His Oscar-winning docudrama One Day in September offered a realistic look at the real-life massacre of Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics. With The Mauritanian, however, Macdonald has crafted his first post-9/11 aftermath thriller. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to humanize the experiences of a guiltless Gitmo inmate affected by the fallout of 9/11, but he pulls it off successfully. Using gorgeous cinematography, Macdonald draws viewers into the world of a falsely accused prisoner that experiences injustice in Guantanamo Bay. Macdonald’s decision to shoot the movie using various aspect ratios is risky, but it works immensely. Working alongside cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler, Macdonald expertly uses shifting aspect ratios to emphasize differences between the lives of investigators and Guantanamo Bay prisoners. For instance, the box-like 1.33:1 ratio immerses viewers into the claustrophobic confinement faced by Gitmo prisoners. In stark contrast, the widescreen 2.35:1 ratio depicts present-day sequences of legal investigation. Macdonald excels at recreating a real-life prisoner’s hardships in post-9/11 America, and his latest feature is worth watching for this reason alone.

If fact-based accounts of falsely accused convicts do not attract your attention, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to watch The Mauritanian. Rory Haines’ greatest strength as a screenwriter is his aptitude to construct an empathetic portrait of terrorism through flashbacks. In Hollywood, most movies depict terrorists as one-dimensional villains without redeeming human traits. To illustrate this point, in 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty terrorists are painted as criminals without sympathy. This often leaves no room for emotional investment and builds misconceptions of 9/11. Thankfully, though, that is not the problem with The Mauritanian. Macdonald wisely avoids portraying Slahi as an antagonist. Instead, he deftly uses flashbacks to capture Slahi’s humanity. The film smoothly jumps back and forth between two timelines: the present-day investigation of criminality and past flashbacks of Slahi’s post-9/11 torture. Through this clever flashback structure, Macdonald creates a complex terrorism suspect whom viewers can easily empathize with. Flashbacks are risky devices to use in political dramas, but they work well in this movie. Using an unconventional screenplay, Macdonald keeps viewers engaged in a prisoner’s decade-long fight against systemic injustice.

It is hard to not admire the astonishing performances from the cast.

Tahar Rahim delivers his finest performance to date as Mohamedou Ould Slahi. Following his breakout turn in 2009’s A Prophet, Rahim has proven to be an outstanding actor with flair for playing resistant prisoners. With The Mauritanian, however, he takes on his most demanding role to date. It is not easy to portray an afflicted real-life convict that endured hardships in Guantanamo Bay. It’s an emotionally exhausting role that requires the actor to perform excruciating torture sequences. However, Rahim pulls it off effortlessly. With riveting expressions, he conveys the angst, determination and perseverance of a prisoner that never loses faith in the face of tragic injustice. It’s a phenomenal performance from one of France’s greatest actors.

The supporting cast is excellent and also worthy of recognition. Jodie Foster is fantastic and pours her soul into a compassionate lawyer that risks her own reputation to absolve a terrorism suspect. Benedict Cumberbatch is brilliant and instills humanity into a conflicted persecutor that has a crisis of conscience. And finally, it is hard to forget Shailene Woodley. As a righteous lawyer, she brings dignity to the movie.

Despite its extraordinary performances, however, it’s unfortunate that the strengths of The Mauritanian are often buried behind bars of imprisonment. Macdonald’s decision to split the movie’s narrative into two different timelines is clever and unpredictable, but it hinders the pacing. Due to this faulty approach, there are times when the present-day sequences of torture investigation aren’t always as engaging as Slahi’s past experiences in solitary confinement. Furthermore, the film is undermined by a dearth of character development. For instance, the defense attorneys that research Slahi’s case are businesslike individuals that are seldom seen outside the workplace. It is hard to care about certain characters when we barely know them on a personal level. Whereas this workmanlike approach worked for a movie like Zero Dark Thirty, it clashes with the empathetic depiction of terrorism in this film.  Political thrillers thrive based on their timeless characters, and in this regard The Mauritanian falls short.

On a cautionary note, it is worth mentioning that The Mauritanian isn’t a movie that is meant for everyone. Given its harrowing themes, the movie may not please mainstream audiences. The film features dark, disturbing and at times gruesome sequences of post-9/11 torture that will inevitably upset some viewers. Viewers that are sensitive towards graphic depictions of torture may not enjoy the movie. Due to its devastating subject, The Mauritanian won’t satisfy everyone.

Ultimately, The Mauritanian is an adequate political drama with jumbled facts that don’t always honor its real-life subject. An engrossing but overambitious adaptation, it celebrates a courageous Gitmo survivor’s experiences. Nearly 19 years following Slahi’s false conviction, hopefully it will convince the U.S. government to shut down a prison that continues to penalize innocent convicts without clear-cut evidence today.

Hassan’s Grade:  B+