Should this film make people mad? Absolutely. But it should also make them feel.
These days, it takes a lot to get Jodie Foster before the camera. With only five films in the last decade and totally absent for the last three years since the criminally underrated Hotel Artemis, these days, a Jodie Foster performance is one of the rarest of occurrences. Foster hasn’t been resting on her laurels, however. In fact, the actress has taken the time to further her passion for directing, helming the financial thriller Money Monster and installments of popular TV series such as Black Mirror and Tales from the Loop. When asked why audiences don’t see her much anymore, Foster responded that the only reason she would choose to act would be for a project which challenged her in a way no other in her 50+ year career has. The latest project to meet such a criteria for Foster has come in the form of The Mauritanian; a legal thriller based on true events. Yet while Foster’s participation and subsequent stellar performance will be enough to please the audiences who see the film, it will surely be one of the last things they talk about.
Opening two months after 9/11, The Mauritanian tells the true story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim), who was was hauled off from his home in Mauritania and taken to Guantanamo Bay due to his suspected involvement with the attack on the world trade center. Held prisoner for upwards of 14 years without a trial or any charges laid against him, Mohamedou’s story eventually catches the eye of Nancy Hollander (Foster) a tough attorney known for making sure that even the most hardened of criminals get their rightful day in court. With her assistant Terri (Shailene Wooodley) by her side, she takes on Mohamedou as a client delves headfirst into the most challenging case of her career. At the same time, Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) will do whatever it takes to make sure Mohamedou never walks free.
In interviews, Foster said that her portrayal of Nancy was different than the real woman herself. While the two-time Oscar winner gave Nancy more of an edge and caustic bite than Hollander does in real life, the tinkering with the role works. Not only does Foster turn in the kind of dynamic performance she’s known for, but it also allows for the gravity of Mohomedu’s case to register with her in stellar ways. As far as Nancy is concerned, guilt or innocence have no bearing on what she’s been tasked to do with the case. All she’s concerned about is that her client be given the fair trial he deserves, regardless of what his crimes may or may not have been. It’s interesting to see Nancy’s clinging to her mission, especially when the idea that her client may actually be guilty of playing a part in one of the most monstrous acts ever committed. The emotional grip on Nancy becomes even more powerful when the amount and details of his abuse is made known to her. Nancy’s lifelong client is justice, but The Mauritanian makes her look beyond the rule of law and into a very real human place she all but avoided before now.
As far as Nancy’s client’s perspective is concerned, the rule of law is something of a bygone concept he more or less believes will never be granted to him. Instead, Mohamedu holds on tight to survival, hope and faith in order to make it through to his ordeal. A part of him knows he may well spend the rest of his life in Guantanamo, yet he still manages to find optimism and beauty even as he endures various forms of torture and abuse, from psychological to sexual. The Mauritanian paints a realistic view of its title character by showing that a large part of him is indeed worn down and weary by the many years he’s spent imprisoned without a single charge laid against him. Still, his inherent spirit refuses to be broken. We see Mohamedu playing with a soccer ball, making friends with both inmates and guards and continuing to pray, showing true defiance through peace and perseverance. Ultimately, it’s the scenes featuring Mohamedu which offer up the most humanity within the film by putting a very real face on an area of 21st century American history that many have purposely only glanced at through their peripheral.
The Mauritanian would be rightly labeled as biased and one-sided had it not included the other side’s presence in telling Mohamedu’s story. If only this area of the film was executed as good as the others. Unfortunately, there isn’t too much that’s novel in the journey of Stuart. He recognizes his duty and does what he can to make sure Mohamedu never walks free until a dose of conscience eventually hits him. Cumberbatch does his best to sell his character’s experience with the case, but his scenes lack the same level of watchability that drive the movie’s other two vantage points. That isn’t to say this perspective isn’t totally without purpose. What Stuart’s storyline accomplishes beautifully is lay out how the far-reaching effects of that fateful day in September. In a sense it’s through these scenes more than any of the others where the film takes an unflinching look back to the extreme reaction towards 9/11 (reactions which many still claim to have been more than justified) and the further human price that was paid from those on every side.
The rest of the performances have no trouble rising up to the levels of emotion and intensity The Mauritanian is shooting for. Woodley, Zachary Levi (as Stuart’s apathetic ally) and especially Rahim give their all to a film which requires more than perhaps any of them ever anticipated. Rahim easily gives the film its true essence by immersing himself in the real man’s story and pulling off one of the year’s best performances as a result. The Mauritanian is not without some faults. Director Kevin McDonald never gets an equal balance exactly right between the trio of storylines and an overly-emotional score in the film’s final courtroom scene feels like it belongs in a totally different film. Still, The Mauritanian is an honest account more than it is an indictment. It serves as another pocket of history from an event that changed all who were alive during that time and forever became part of this country’s story.