It's often the case that movies based on true stories offer a glimpse of the real-life characters at the end. In "The Mauritanian," the story of former Guantanamo Bay detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi's 14 years behind bars, that real-life footage is the most engaging part of the film.
That's not entirely the fault of the filmmakers, who do an earnest and thoughtful if less than totally absorbing job of telling Slahi's story based on the best-selling memoir he wrote in prison, "Guantanamo Diary."
It's just that nothing can beat this intimate view of the real man, smiling and singing joyfully to Bob Dylan, no less. One wonders how he even managed to stay sane, let alone joyful, after 14 years at Guantanamo without being formally charged or tried. And in conditions that included brutal torture: severe cold, sexual humiliation, sleep deprivation, waterboarding and threats to imprison his own mother at Guantanamo.
Luckily, "The Mauritanian," directed by Kevin Macdonald, gets one thing very right: Tahar Rahim's masterful central performance. The French actor achieves something his big-name costars — Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch and Shailene Woodley — do not, presenting a multi-layered, subtly shaded and deeply moving portrayal that proves hard to forget. Rahim deserves the awards buzz he's getting; he also deserves more big roles, and soon.
"The Mauritanian" has a quasi-documentary feel at times. Partly that's because there's a lot of dry information to get across here, namely the ins and outs of Slahi's legal case. The film tries to achieve this by juxtaposing the stories of defense lawyer Nancy Hollander (Foster), who works to gain Slahi's release based on lack of evidence, and U.S. military prosecutor Stuart Couch (Cumberbatch.)
Both Foster, in her brittle, crusty portrayal of Hollander, and Cumberbatch, sporting a southern drawl as a devoted military man with a conscience, are welcome presences in any movie. But the script here really doesn't give them a lot to work with.
Rahim, though, has plenty of room to shine. The actor finds a way to infuse almost every scene with humor and humanity. We first meet Slahi at a wedding celebration in Mauritania, two months after 9/11. The police show up to question him about ties to al-Qaida. "The Americans are going crazy," they say. He assures his mother he'll be back soon — and asks her to save him some food. It's clear she fears she may never see him again (in fact, she didn't.)
"The Mauritanian," is rated R "for violence including a sexual assault, and language." Running time: 129 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.