Reel Dad: 'The Mauritanian' puts spotlight on a true story

"The Mauritanian."

"The Mauritanian."

IMDb / Contributed photo

Movies can remind us of times in our world that we may wish to forget. When done well, these films help us learn from history so, hopefully, we avoid repeating past mistakes.

The legal drama “The Mauritanian” takes us back to the tense time in this country immediately after the Twin Towers were attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. Following this tragedy, our government took steps intended to protect the nation from additional attack, including the imprisonment of suspected terrorists at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp at the U.S. Naval Base in Cuba. This outpost, located at the far end of an island disconnected in most ways, ironically hosted our nation’s test for how far we would go to protect who we are.

With care and respect, “The Mauritanian” unpacks the agendas that inspired this moment as well as the priorities of those who hoped to survive. The film focuses on Mohamedou Ould Salahi, a Mauritanian, who was captured by the U.S. in 2002, but never officially charged, for suspected involvement in planning the 9/11 attacks. While flashbacks offer glimpses of Salahi’s treatment at Guantanamo, the central story follows how his attorney uses the detail of the law to try to secure his freedom. As the brave, determined lawyer maneuvers through the judicial rhetoric, she suggests the possibilities of a broader conspiracy behind Salahi’s imprisonment.

Movies teach us how to watch films that ask these questions. Sequences in “The Mauritanian” remind us of conspiracies that other films explore, from the fictional stories of “The Manchurian Candidate” and “The Parallax View” to the accounts of actual governmental actions in “The Report” and “The Post” to the accusations articulated in such classics as “Missing” and “Z.” This film demands our attention when it pieces together the puzzle of possible corruption as it considers what could be behind what we see on screen. The film is at its best when it tells a big story of a government intent on discovering villains, but less effective when it tries to teach the art of judicial maneuvering. Unfortunately, “The Mauritanian” slows to a crawl when the film delves into legal dialogue that dilutes the personal dimensions of the story.

Tahir Rahim, an actor so memorable in “The Eagle,” gives Salahi a solid personal foundation of caring for his family that frames his desperation. He carefully makes the character a sympathetic figure without passing judgment on the man’s guilt or innocence. Instead, Rahim focuses on the impact of uncertainty on a damaged soul. As his attorney, Golden Globe winner Jodie Foster is a welcome presence on screen, bringing her trademark integrity to a role that suggests a life hidden behind professional obligations. The actress brings a strong sense of fairness to the role without trying to create a hero. She is simply someone who wants to do what she can for one man to get a fair treatment. And we believe every moment.

Films like “The Mauritanian” prompt us to objectively assess the ultimate rights and wrongs of moments past. Despite the missteps, this film gives us a lot to consider.

Summary: The Mauritanian

Content: High. This exploration of how a prisoner is treated suggests a conspiracy behind U.S. actions post 9/11.

Entertainment: High. As serious as the content, the film works well when it focuses on the big questions of fairness and judgment.

Message: Medium. The film dilutes its impact by getting caught up in the details of legal maneuverings.

Relevance: High. Any opportunity to revisit moments in history can be worthwhile for you and your older children. But this is not a family film.

Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film with your older children, talk with them about the actions that governments take to address tragedies that people experience.

“The Mauritanian” runs 2 hours, 9 minutes, and is rated R for “violence including a sexual assault, and language.” The film is available on demand as well as on iTunes, Google Play and You Tube.