“The Mauritanian” has received two Golden Globe nominations for stars, Tahar Rahim (relatively unknown to American audiences) and acting legend Jodie Foster, who’s making a comeback with this film. The recognitions are well-deserved, particularly for Rahim. His portrayal of suspected 9/11 terrorist Mohamedou Ould Salahi holds this ‘based on a true story’ intellectual thriller together.
Shortly after 9/11, Salahi is taken into custody and sent to Guantanamo Bay. Authorities believe he’s connected to Al Qaeda and was in on the planning and attacks on NYC and D.C. But U.S. officials have no evidence — and Salahi never waivers in declaring his innocence.
Prominent civil rights attorney Nancy Hollander (Foster) decides to take his case. She and associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) visit Salahi in prison and get his story. While she may not be convinced that he’s innocent, Hollander is convinced the prisoner is being held illegally.
On the government’s side is successful military prosecutor Stu Couch. He’s played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Couch is not only motivated to take the case on its merits, but it’s also personal. He lost a close friend on 9/11.
Cumberbatch, as always, is solid. He has several scenes with a bulked-up Zachary Levi (who plays former colleague Neil Buckland). When things get tense, it’s a Doctor Strange v. Shazam — Marvel v. DC showdown.
Couch’s arc is legitimate and one of the most interesting elements of “The Mauritanian”. Hollander, on the other hand, is a rather one-note character. Foster’s work is perfectly fine but largely mellow and understated, without much depth or surprises. Woodley is even more limited.
Several connected storylines weave in and around each other, all surrounding this prisoner looking for justice and clinging to hope. Torture scenes, which come rather late in the film, are vividly gruesome and provide the narrative with a much-needed jolt.
A trio of screenwriters and director Kevin Macdonald have made a movie that’s both engaging and uncomplicated — somewhat unique for the 21st Century “Ripped from the Headlines” legal drama genre.
LCJ GRADE: B
Running Time: 129 min.