Review: Despite Erratic Storytelling, The Mauritanian Is a Compelling Glimpse into Life in Guantanamo Bay

Directed by noted documentarian (One Day in September) and feature filmmaker (The Last King of Scotland) Kevin Macdonald, The Mauritanian centers on the horrific true story of Guantánamo Bay detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim), upon whose memoir, Guantánamo Diary, this film is based. In many ways, the film gives us the other side of the coin of The Report from a couple years ago, a first-hand account of Slahi’s stay in the notorious military prison. For much of his time there, he was never charged by the U.S. government, and only after he was, was he was contacted by attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster), who was acutely aware that he was being held without any clear evidence that he knew anything about the 9/11 attacks or any future attacks against America.

The Mauritanian
Image courtesy of STX Films

When the time comes to finally build a case against Slahi, the government assigns military prosecutor Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) to the case, one that, since he lost a friend in the attacks, is exceedingly personal to him. The Mauritanian has the feel of a courtroom drama despite the fact that almost none of the film takes place in a courtroom. Much of the film is devoted to both sides scraping and scrambling to get hold of relevant, un-redacted evidence—anything to prove one way or another what Slahi’s role in any wrongdoing might have been. Hollander and her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) visit Slahi at Guantánamo countless times, and our view of the inside of the prison (and its rigorous security measures) is one of the most detailed I’ve seen on film. But it also captures what life for the detainees is like, with Slahi making friends with another prisoner during his time outside. He never actually sees this other person, but they talk through a cloth barrier and exchange life stories in a desperate attempt at connection.

Once actual evidence starts to see the light of day, Lt. Col. Couch is horrified to discover the truth about how little actual, actionable intelligence is coming out of Guantánamo detainees, despite years of physical and mental torment. He has an exchange with a friend in the CIA (Zachary Levi) who attempts to explain why the interrogation process must continue despite its overwhelming lack of success, and his arguments are paper thin at best, leaving Couch unwilling to continue with his prosecution—which gets him transferred immediately.

The entire time I was watching The Mauritanian, I felt I was being fed the shorthand version of this story whenever the court case was being discussed, when it was the tireless efforts of Hollander and her team, however boring, that give Slahi a fighting chance. But the moments that focus on Slahi are beyond gripping—the way he was tortured until he simply gave up and still managed to come out of the experience fairly positive seems impossible, but Rahim’s performance makes it easy to understand how he managed to keep his sanity throughout.

Despite its somewhat erratic storytelling, when Macdonald stays focused on the narrative’s more soul-wrenching aspects, the work is mostly successful. That being said, you don’t hire Foster or Cumberbatch to place in the background, and it isn’t like their presence wrecks the movie by any stretch. But having an attorney stand defeated before a conference room full of boxes of evidence is an image we’ve seen before in countless legal dramas. It just isn’t as compelling as what our title character is going through, and the film suffers somewhat because of that.

The film is now playing theatrically throughout Chicago. Please follow CDC, health department and venue guidelines if attending indoor screenings.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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