[Screen It]


(2021) (Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim) (R)

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Drama: A lawyer takes on the habeas corpus case of a 9/11 suspect who's been held by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay for years despite no charges being leveled against him.

It's November 2001 and Mohamedou Ould Slahi (TAHAR RAHIM) is attending a family wedding back in his home country of Mauritania when he's detained by local authorities in the belief that he's tied to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in America earlier that fall. Years later, lawyer Nancy Hollander (JODIE FOSTER), who's been given the liberty of selecting a pro bono case to work on, chooses to represent Mohamedou or, more accurately, the principle of habeas corpus.

And that's because not long after his arrest, Mohamedou was shipped to the U.S. prison facility at Guantanamo Bay where he's been held for years without a single official charge brought against him. Along with her younger coworker, Teri Duncan (SHAILENE WOODLEY), Nancy travels to meet the man and then begins working through files associated with his detainment. At the same time, Colonel Stu Couch (BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH) -- who lost a close friend in those terrorist attacks -- has been ordered to prosecute the alleged co-conspirator of the attacks.

But he finds that his former classmate and current friend Neil Buckland (ZACHARY LEVI), along with every other federal agent, doesn't want Stu to have access to the full records on the case and instead -- following orders directly from the White House -- wants a swift conviction.

As time passes and Nancy continues to battle roadblocks put in her way, Stu finds himself increasingly frustrated by his inability to get all the facts he believes he needs to win without the potential for any sort of appeal or mistrial.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10

I've always been fascinated by -- but never took the time to delve deeply into the reasons why -- the fact that the United States has a military base in Cuba, especially after Castro took control, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the strained relations ever since.

It turns out, for those who don't know, that a leasing agreement was made back in 1903 for American mining and naval operations there, with updates to that in 1934 and 1973, but no amendment regarding a fixed expiration date of that lease.

Things became more complicated following the 9/11 terrorist attacks when President George W. Bush's administration established the Guantanamo Bay detention camp there in 2002, where alleged enemy combatants were held for questioning and, we later learned, torture in the name of the war on terrorism.

One such prisoner who was held there was Mohamedou Ould Salahi, a man born in Mauritania, educated in Germany, and who trained in an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan to try to help topple the communist government (a common enemy of the U.S. at that time).

Due to those connections, he was suspected of involvement in the LAX bombing attempt and then the 9/11 attacks the following year. Like others, he was held at Gitmo -- despite no official charges being leveled against him -- but in his case, that was for 14 years until lawyer Nancy Hollander finally managed to get him freed.

Their tale and the directly related attempts to uphold the principle of habeas corpus is the focus of "The Mauritanian," a decent if not as powerful as expected and certainly a familiar-sounding and feeling drama about justice and law run amok and efforts to right the system.

The tale is familiar since we've (unfortunately) seen plenty of legal dramas about citizens wrongly imprisoned and/or not being afforded due process for the crime they've allegedly committed. And that includes the lawyer or legal team who/that run the risk of professional and sometimes personal ruin in taking on such cases in the usual David vs. Goliath sort of fashion.

What's somewhat surprising, considering some of the heightened elements, is that this otherwise solid offering -- from director Kevin Macdonald and screenwriters M.B. Traven, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani who've adapted Ould Salahi's 2015 memoir "Guantanamo Diary" -- isn't as brilliant or strong as one might otherwise expect. Yes, it has the requisite outrage over the abuse of power and the overstepping of boundaries as well as the horrific use of torture for intel and a (forced) confession.

And it has a great cast, with Tahar Rahim terrifically playing Ould Salahi, Jodie Foster as Hollander, Shailene Woodley as her younger associate, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch, the Marine Corps judge advocate ordered to prosecute the case no matter what (and with a personal, vested interest in the outcome).

The director and writers thankfully avoid the standard A-to-Z linear playbook of such offerings by having the story jump around through time. And like previous legal dramas, the element of whether the suspect is indeed possibly guilty hangs over the proceedings, and Hollander makes note of that, but is more driven by defending the Constitution than ensuring that her client ends up free.

Despite that and then switching gears to a degree upon the discovery of additional information, Foster's character comes off as the least interesting of the bunch and it's possible that what siphons away some of the film's thunder. Whatever the case/explanation, while I was engaged with the characters and story, I never felt as enthralled as I felt like I should have been. And for that reason, "The Mauritanian" rates just as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed February 3, 2021 / Posted February 19, 2021

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