LONDON: There were some raised eyebrows when the nominations for the 93rd Academy Awards included no mention of Kevin Macdonald’s legal drama “The Mauritanian” — but perhaps fewer than there may have been, given that the COVID-19 pandemic has (as in so many cases) restricted its wider release to streaming services, so audiences outside of America only now have the chance to see Macdonald’s adaption of Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s 2015 memoir “Guantánamo Diary.”
“The Mauritanian” stars Tahar Rahim as Slahi, and chronicles his 14-year captivity in the infamous US military prison, where he was held without charge. When defense attorneys Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) learn of Slahi’s situation, they find themselves facing down tenacious military prosecutor Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the might (not to mention the ability to drag its heels) of the US government.
Clocking in at just over two hours, “The Mauritanian” is not an easy watch — there are a lot of furrowed brows poring over documents, and some brutal enactments of the treatment Slahi was subjected to during his detention. Foster is a powerhouse as the no-nonsense Hollander and Cumberbatch is decent as the zealous prosecutor with an axe to grind, but Rahim puts in the most work as the embattled Mauritanian, showing us impotent rage, reconciled acceptance, philosophical forgiveness and everything in between.
But therein lies the main problem with this film. As viewers, we become so outraged by the treatment of Slahi, and the injustice of his story (even after securing his legal exoneration, he was held for another six years), that the level of grace and forgiveness that Rahim portrays — in the face of such deplorable and widespread malpractice behind the walls of Guantánamo — fails to resonate. As Macdonald reveals the shocking nature of the facility, and the far-reaching power that enabled it to operate with virtual impunity, there’s little in the way of direct accusation beyond some epilogue text.