It’s easy to see why Kevin Macdonald’s worthy Guantanamo Bay thriller has been nominated for armfuls of BAFTAs, Golden Globes and Critic’s Choice awards – but it’s less obvious why it was completely snubbed by the Oscars. Then again, since the film tells the true story of America’s attempt to cover up its own mistakes, it almost seems fitting that the Academy has chosen to ignore The Mauritanian.
After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, America decided to crack down on terrorism at any and all costs. Throwing civil rights and due process out of the window, the government staged aggressive sweep operations to round up anyone connected with Al-Qaeda, setting up an offshore prison camp in Cuba to hold suspects against their will, without trial, without representation – and without anyone around to see what they were really doing to them.
Top of the government’s most wanted list in 2002 was Mohamedou Ould Salahi (played here by Tahar Rahim, from French drama A Prophet), a man the US branded “The Al Qaeda Forrest Gump”, with phone calls linking him to a whole network of other names on the classified list. Scooped up at a family wedding, Salahi is secreted away in an orange jumpsuit to Guantanamo and left to rot in a concrete cell without ever being told what he was arrested for. Worse, the CIA guarding him spend years torturing him with beatings, threats of rape, sexual humiliation, stress positions, sleep deprivation and water boarding – something Macdonald (Whitney, The Last King Of Scotland) shows in harrowing flashbacks as he uncovers the hard truth behind all the lies.
Based on Salahi’s own bestselling 2015 memoir, Guantanamo Diary, The Mauritanian pushes most of the early horror to the background as it takes up the case at the same time human rights attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) gets involved. Fighting her way through military red tape to even get in the same room as Salahi, Hollander, together with her translator and aide (Shailene Woodley), find an innocent man completely broken by a system that he can’t fight. As army lawyer Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) starts prepping Salahi’s show trial, Hollander prepares to defend him – battling years of legal frustrations on the outside as the prisoner battles his own sanity in George W. Bush’s secret island dungeon.
Occasionally pulling its punches, The Mauritanian is never quite the film it needs to be, but a smart script and a full house of heavyweight performances keep it moving like a sturdy old-fashioned legal drama with something to say. Cumberbatch finds heart and humanity in his jacketed military stooge (even through a weird Colonel Saunders accent), and Foster plays the crusading Hollander like an unstoppable freight-train. It’s Rahim, though, who ensures sure the message never gets lost in legalese. Showing the painfully human side of false imprisonment in all its ugliness, the rising actor keeps us guessing right up to the film’s casually dealt gut-punch ending.
Considering the awful humanitarian crimes that went on behind closed doors in Guantanamo Bay, there’s definitely a much more powerful film to be made out of Salahi’s story than the one we get in The Mauritanian. Instead giving us a political suspenser with a slightly softened bite, Macdonald’s solid, occasionally generic exposé still lands with weight thanks to Rahim – a name that really should have been on that Oscar list…
- Director: Kevin Macdonald
- Starring: Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tahar Rahim
- Release date: April 1 (Amazon Prime Video)