‘The Mauritanian’: P.O.W. Survivalist Tale

The Mauritanian (now in theaters, though you’re more likely to catch it when it goes on-demand starting March 2nd) begins with both a return and an exit. A man named Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim) has come home to North Africa for a wedding. He’s been abroad, studying electrical engineering in Germany and living briefly in Montreal. It’s November 2001, two months after 9/11. While visiting with his family, the authorities drop by to see him. The Americans are interested in you, they tell Slahi.

Slahi’s firsthand account of life in Guantanamo is only one of the narrative strands we follow; there are two others jostling for screen time. Viewers also get to ride shotgun as human-rights lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster, rocking a wicked gray power bob) takes on Slahi’s case after a Der Spiegel story on his whereabouts broke in 2005. Along with her fellow attorney Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), she acts as counsel for the prisoner, as well as a tour guide for the bureaucratic labyrinth that characterized the handling of such highly classified, heavily redacted information around detainees.

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She’s our eyes and ears for the specific culture around the legal-limbo Cuban incarceration facility — the strangely picturesque bus rides, the prison gift shops that serve beer, the surfing off-duty guards — as well as the culture shock. When Hollander and Duncan arrive for their first meeting with Slahi, they’re advised to wear hijabs, as some inmates have been known to spit on female visitors. (To be fair, Clarice Starling had to put up with a hell of a lot worse.)

And then there’s Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch, admirably fighting a Southern accent to a draw), the military man who’s heading up the prosecution and has a personal stake in the outcome: A dear friend of his was on the plane that hit the second tower. Given that Slahi had trained in a terrorist camp in the early 1990s when Afghanistan was still fighting a communist regime, had received a call from his cousin on one of Bin Laden’s burner phones and had housed Hamburg cell member Ramzi bin al-Shibh at his apartment in Germany for a night — he is, per one government official, “the Al Qaeda Forrest Gump” — Couch assumes it should be easy to get a conviction.