The Mauritanian

Tahar Rahim and Jodie Foster


The man at the centre of The Mauritanian, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, is a real person. Wikipedia spells his last name Salahi but its facts otherwise agree pretty closely with Kevin Macdonald’s film – picked up in Mauritania, extraordinary rendition to Guantanamo Bay, where he was held for years, suspected of being Al Qaeda’s chief recruiter.

Was he? Macdonald earned his stripes making documentaries and went big time with Touching the Void. Since then he’s had his biggest successes with films cleaving close to the factual (The Last King of Scotland, about Uganda tyrant Idi Amin), while the more overtly fictional The Eagle (Roman legions in Scotland) and Black Sea (submarine jeopardy) caused less overall excitement. The Mauritanian wants to have its cake and eat it – to be factually true yet dramatically intense – and does it by playing peekaboo with Slahi’s guilt or innocence.

Early on, Macdonald shows us Slahi deleting all the contacts on his phone. A later revelation – that he’d taken a call from Osama Bin Laden’s satellite phone – also seems to point the finger. This last in particular could easily have been cleared up in a flashback (there are plenty), but Macdonald leaves things vague. Suspicions are allowed to grow.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Slahi in Gitmo being questioned about his past activities. The prosecution got in to ensure he goes to death row is headed by buttoned-down establishemnt guy Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), one of whose friends was flying one of the planes that powered into the Twin Towers. Ranged against him is doughty unsmiling defender Nancy Hollander, an activist lawyer professional to her cuticles assisted by slightly gosh-wow rookie Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley).

Prosecutor Stuart Couch
Benedict Cumberbatch as Stuart Couch



Hollander’s “defence” of Slahi isn’t a defence of him at all but of a principle. It’s essentially a call to the US government to put up or shut up – charge Slahi or let him go – using the most basic legal principle of all, Habeas Corpus.

From here there’s a good slab of very familiar material – Hollander petitioning the authorities for its evidence, the authorities responding either with pages of material so redacted as to be useless, or attempting to swamp the defence with boxes of papers which can only be read by her and Duncan and only in this one secure room, an impossible task.

Crouch, meanwhile, is ploughing his own furrow. And while Hollander’s takes her away from abstract involvment in the case into a more personal interest, Crouch’s takes him in the opposite direction – from hot emotion to a much cooler appraisal of what’s going on at a legal level. The liberal Hollander’s story is the more obviously glorious and crusading, but Crouch’s story is also important and interesting and he is in many respects the hero of this tale, especially after he visits Gitmo to find out first hand what goes on there.

Crouch, Hollander, Duncan – these briskly written characters are tight, bright people with no time for messing around. Cumberbatch (voice slung slow), Foster and Woodley respond by playing them as written, crisply. Their interactions together are fascinating to watch. Macdonald has clearly picked up a thing or two from the walkie-talkie-ness of Aaron Sorkin’s dramas (from A Few Good Men to The Social Network).

Slahi, on the other hand, in the hands of Tahar Rahim, is expansive, warm, engaging, personable, a presence whose charm, and Rahim’s skills, are used to keep the glimmer of a suspicion alive. “The Forest Gump of Al Qaeda” as one interogator puts it? Still a possibility.

If you know Slahi’s story then some of Macdonald’s dramatic crescendoes just won’t work – I didn’t, so they did. More generally, The Mauritanian tells a story that’s no surprise – man arrested on no charge, held for years, confession extracted by water-boarding, sexual humiliation, sleep-deprivation, heavy metal, stress-positions and the full Rumsfeld-sanctioned bag of tricks.

Out of 749 detentions at Guantanamo Bay there have been only seven convictions. While putting a human face on one of those stories, the familiarity of what happens to Slahi, who remains opaque to the end, robs this politically important film of some of its dramatic power.





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© Steve Morrissey 2021






Contact

Jodie Foster in Contact

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

15 March

 

World Contact Day

Today is World Contact Day. It was declared as such by the International Flying Saucer Bureau in 1953. Since then it has used annually as an opportunity for all those interested in doing so to send a message telepathically to any extraterrestrial alien in space who might be interested in visiting earth. Not to be confused with World UFO Day (24 June or 2 July depending on who you talk to), it was originally intended by “contactees” as a way of establishing not just that entities from other worlds existed, but that they were friendly. The International Flying Saucer Institute was created by a Connecticut gentleman by the name of Albert K Bender in 1952. He shut it down in 1953 after the first World Contact Day, later claiming he had been visited by “men in black” – monsters from the planet Kazik – who had told him the terrifying truth about UFOs. The Canadian band Klaatu (named after the alien from 1951’s When the World Stood Still) would later set to music the message which IFSB members were telepathing – it begins “Calling occupants of interplanetary craft”. Later the Carpenters would cover it and turn into a worldwide hit.

 

 

 

Contact (1997, dir: Robert Zemeckis)

The sci-fi writer Arthur C Clarke once said “either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” This attitude of thoughtful inquiry pervades Contact, an unusual sci-fi film about a radio astronomer (Jodie Foster) who has spent her entire professional life scanning the skies for signs of extraterrestrial life. Not that it has been working out too well for her – friends and colleagues think she’s borderline crazy even bothering with the SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) program. As for taking it seriously… The reason why she does is complicated. It’s partly a search for the father (David Morse) who died when she was young. It’s partly a search for a god she doesn’t even believe in. These questions of psychology and theology are dotted through the film’s first two thirds, until some sort of contact is made (if that’s a spoiler then you’ve not read the film’s title), and are hashed about by some fine actors (John Hurt as a Howard Hughes-like billionaire, Tom Skerritt as a sceptical co-worker, James Woods and Angela Bassett as the government’s own men in black). But mostly Contact is an opportunity for Foster to put on a display of fierce focus – she does it so well – while the astronomer Carl Sagan’s script wheels out the big concepts and Robert Zemeckis’s cool, lush camera repeatedly suggests that humanity possibly isn’t worth a hill of beans. The love interest subplot with Matthew McConaughey isn’t necessary and towards the final third, which packs in a helluva lot in a short space of time, things do get a bit frenzied and just a touch ridiculous. Yet Jodie Foster’s commitment makes it work. It’s hard to imagine it working so well with anyone else in fact.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Based on Carl Sagan’s book
  • Robert Zemeckis’s gift for FX
  • The support cast is first rate
  • Look out for a young Jena Malone as a young Jodie Foster

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Contact – at Amazon