Lessons are hard to unlearn, especially when they have been taught to the heart rather than the head. For too many Americans, the end result of 9/11 was a desperate, helpless sense of vengeance that could excuse any cruelty in its relentless bloodlust. It’s only in recent years that the country en masse has begun to grapple with the violent and depraved acts committed against Muslim communities in the name of justice. The Mauritanian, directed by Kevin Macdonald, picks up where The Report left off on this score. It not only defines the crimes committed by the US government against Guantanamo Bay detainees and brings them into the light, but imbues its victims with a tremendous humanity, aided by the startlingly powerful lead performance from Tahar Rahim.

During the years following the September 11th terrorist attacks, it did not seem to occur to the United States government that they would not be able to detain and torture suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay forever under the broad and distinctly ominous umbrella of “intelligence gathering.” That eventually, there would come a day when they would need to start charging these individuals with a crime, or let them go. After the Supreme Court begins to allow detainees to sue the government for violating their rights to habeas corpus, lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) becomes interested in one case in particular: that of Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim).

Salahi has been detained in Guantanamo Bay for years, due to his connections with high-ranking Al-Qaeda members, and is believed to be one of the chief recruiters for the September 11th terrorist attacks. So it stands to reason that the US government would consider him a high value prisoner, and that emotions would be running high over the matter of his eventual release or execution. There’s a snag, though: despite that fact that Salahi has spent years imprisoned, it isn’t entirely clear that he’s actually done anything wrong or, for that matter, if the US intelligence community is even concerned with his guilt or innocence.

Their hand is forced by the Supreme Court’s ruling on habeas corpus, however, and battle lines are drawn. Salahi, Nancy, and her kind-hearted but inexperienced legal associate Teri (Shailene Woodley) on one side, and Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), prosecutor for the US government, on the other. Couch is not only a born-and-bred military man, but he has a personal score to settle, having lost a dear friend and colleague in the attacks.

The greatest strength of The Mauritanian is that it frames Rahim with two capable, talented actors in Foster and Cumberbatch, but then mostly has them get out the way. Their reactions to the horrors they uncover as they delve deeper into the case are moving, to be sure, but this is not their story. Salahi is rightfully centered within the film, and the two legal characters merely provide context for his story. The Mauritanian is Rahim’s to carry, and it would not be anywhere near as effective without his empathetic performance in the leading role. His Salahi is utterly captivating from the moment he first appears on screen. Rahim imbues the character with intelligence, charisma, humor, and most importantly, humanity.

The Mauritanian highlights his personhood, which is a well-judged approach. During an era of American foreign policy seemingly filled with shadowy terrorist figures and amorphous bogeymen, this film stubbornly refuses to allow anyone to forget that the US government committed these heinous acts against actual people. Rahim’s performance as Salahi emphasizes the best that human nature has to offer: an adaptability, an endless capacity for hope, and a willingness to forgive even when it isn’t deserved. But it resists the urge to portray any of this as heart-warming: there is no soppiness to his plight, no sentimental fluff about a man trying to make the best of an inhumane confinement.

The Mauritanian does not luxuriate in sequences of physical torture (although they do have a place in the film, so as not to erase them from the narrative entirely), avoiding the kind of excess this genre sometimes falls prey to. Instead, it presents an interpretation of Salahi’s story that remains entirely centered around his humanity. We are so much more than the worst thing that has ever happened to us, and Tahar Rahim’s performance in The Mauritanian does justice to Salahi’s experiences as a Guantanamo Bay detainee.

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