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The Mauritanian
Credit: STXfilms

In the real world, as anyone who's ever been called up to jury duty knows, the arc of justice can be messy, arcane, and often mind-numbingly slow. In movies magically, it doesn't have to be. And so we get smart, sobering dramas like Spotlight, The Report, Just Mercy: fact-based stories electrified by big moments and movie stars but still sanctioned by the truth.

The Mauritanian (out Friday) is satisfying for exactly those reasons — because it reckons with actual recent history, and because we get to watch billboard-size luminaries like Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch do the reckoning. Though one of the film's best assets also turns out to be one of its least known: Tahir Rahim (A Prophet), the French-Algerian actor who plays the Mauritanian of the title, Mohamedou Ould Slahi.

Arrested in the wake of 9/11 and accused of being the architect of some of that day's worst atrocities, Slahi was sent to Guantánamo, where he would be held without charges for nearly 15 years. Most Americans were either unaware or glad to see him rot indefinitely; one, an Albuquerque attorney named Nancy Hollander, presumed he might be guilty too, but didn't like the way he got there.

Foster, her hair bobbed silver and her mouth a slash of stop-sign red, plays Hollander as a sort of steely warrior — less for Mahemedou himself than for the greater idea of due process. But as she and her assistant Teri (Shailene Woodley) dig further in (or at least as far as they're allowed to go in a case that is effectively blacked out before it even begins), the evidence against him is almost entirely circumstantial or worse, coerced by methods well outside the sanctioned lines of democracy.

Slahi is unreadable at first, roundly proclaiming his innocence but reluctant to tell even his own defense team exactly how interrogators got all the damning information he's confessed to. For Stu Crouch (Cumberbatch), the courtly Marine Corps lawyer charged with prosecuting him, the facts — if not his many friends in government — are more forthcoming. If there's evidence of torture does that change his playing field, or negate the general consensus that someone needs to pay?

Director Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland, Touching the Void) gives the movie both the global sweep of a thriller and the more granular details of a procedural, though in the end hardly any of it takes place in a courtroom. Instead it becomes more a mystery of unraveling, and — between the graphic bouts of institutionalized terror that culminate in the film's final third — even a lyrical kind of character study.

MacDonald is also working with familiar elements, and he often can't resist the swell of a soundtrack or a big, Sorkin-y speech. But the screenplay by Michael Bronner (adapted from Slahi's own bestselling 2015 memoir) is brisk and propulsive, and Rahim, toggling seamlessly between English, French, and Arabic, makes his Slahi so compelling that The Mauritanian, for all its punishing and sometimes didactic turns, reaches for something not many Hollywood productions do: Telling a story centered not just the moral quandaries its Western characters face, but on the soul of the man at the center of it all. Grade: B

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