“The Last King of Scotland” director Kevin Macdonald makes good use of his background in documentary film for his latest release “The Mauritanian,” now on premium digital and on-demand. The story of a 9/11 suspect held by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay despite never being officially charged, is a drama based on true events, but uses documentary style devices to convey the nuts and bolts of the case.
Jodie Foster is Nancy Hollander, an attorney who takes on the pro bono case of Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim), a Mauritanian national accused of acts of terrorism related to 9/11. While he is housed at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp without charge and, as a high-value detainee, subjected to torture, Hollander begins her investigation. “I’m not just defending him,” she says. “I’m defending you and me. The constitution doesn’t have an asterisk at the end that says, ‘Terms and Conditions apply.’”
On the prosecution is Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), a straight arrow with a personal connection to the case. “He recruited the SOBs who flew your friend into the south tower,” he is told. Couch lost a good friend in 9/11 and is seeking the death penalty for Slahi. “If we miss something,” he says to his team, “this guy goes home. Let’s get to it.”
As the trial looms Couch learns federal agents, including his friend and former classmate Neil Buckland (Zachary Levi), are withholding crucial documents. Powerful people want a quick and decisive conviction and are willing to bury an evidence that may get in the way of that. “Your job is to bring charges,” he is told. Couch fights back, believing the only path to an unequivocal verdict, one without the possibility of appeal, lies in having all the facts. “I’ve never been part of a conspiracy,” he says, “but I’m starting to think this is what it must feel like to be on the outside.”
“The Mauritanian” is an uneven film with several standout elements. As a procedural it is fairly straightforward, but within the story are complex legal questions. At what point does fear circumvent the law? How can human rights violations be condoned under any circumstances? How can habeas corpus, the right to appear before a judge, to know why you’ve been arrested and detained, ever be denied?
Each question is a conversation starter and Hollander wasted no words clarifying her stance on these questions. “I’m not just defending him,” she says. “I’m defending the rule of law.” It’s a powerful reminder that ethics and rules matter. “You built this place and you abandoned all your principles and all of your laws,” Hollander says. “What if you were wrong?”
Adding humanity to the story’s tale of inhuman behaviour is Rahim who hands in a layered, interesting performance in a film that isn’t quite as complex as his work.