THE MAURITANIAN ½
2021, R, 129 mins
Benedict Cumberbatch as Lt. Stuart Couch / Jodie Foster as Nancy Hollander / Shailene Woodley as Teri Duncan / Tahar Rahim as Mohamedou Ould Salahi / Zachary Levi as Neil Buckland / Langley Kirkwood as Sergeant Sands / Corey Johnson as Bill SeidelDirected by Kevin MacDonald / Written by Michael Bronner, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani
is one of those obvious kind of Oscar bait wanna-be prestige pictures
that, in all fairness, tells a story that absolutely needs to be told.
Based on the 2015 memoir by Mohamedou Ould Salahi, the film chronicles his true story of being held at Guantanamo Bay detention camp post-9/11 for a period of fourteen years...and all without having been formally charge with any type of crime. He was apprehended just after the terrorist attacks of 2001 and was accused of being one of the key recruiters for the enemy, despite minimal circumstantial evidence that didn't directly tie him as a close ally to any known terrorist (one of the 9/11 hijackers did crash on his sofa one night prior to the events in question, but that's about it). Salahi was guilty by the weakest of associations and was arrested in November of 2001 via the then new and far reaching powers of the American government, who believed that he was an integral part of al Qaeda. For years he was tortured for information, all of which he covered in his aforementioned book (amazingly written and published while in captivity). It would take aggressive legal action for him to finally see freedom on October of 2016, during which time he returned to his home of Mauritania.
His emotional and
physical wounds, though, would forever run deep.
does a reasonably good job of relaying the utter senselessness and
frequent depravity of Salahi's gut-wrenching imprisonment and the
nightmarishly arduous torture that was inflicted on him while
incarcerated. As far as noble
minded message films go, this Kevin Macdonald (TOUCHING
THE VOID and STATE OF PLAY)
affair is kind of required viewing in the way that it highlights the
damning treatment of prisoners like Salahi at Guantanamo and how basic
human rights and due legal process were completely thrown out the window.
The one thing that THE MAURITANIAN does absolutely right is to
delve into the larger War on Terror by focusing on those often forgotten
people that greatly suffered in American's quest for justice (and this
often meant completely innocent Middle Eastern men like Salahi who only
fit the superficial profile of looking like a terrorist while not actually
being one). Part of my
frustration, though, in watching THE MAURITANIAN is that, well, it
unfolds in a mostly generic and conventional manner as far as these types
of historical legal thrillers go. There's
nothing wrong with old school filmmaking, of course, but too much of
Macdonald's film seems too flavourless, like a TV movie of the
week that's desperately clamoring for silver screen worthiness and
The film is
structured in a serious of flashbacks and flashforwards, all of which try
to create a vast picture of time dealing with Salahi being taken in and
imprisoned, the entire legal process that began to free him, and the
dreadful treatment he received while at the detention camp.
We see how Salahi (Tahar Rahim, one of the fim's large saving
graces) was apprehended from his home land and thrown into his windowless
cell, and with no hope of being released, let alone actually being charged
with anything. News of his
plight makes its way to ACLU lawyer Nancy Hollander (the always refined
Jodie Foster), who relishes at taking risky challenges in her career (and
what would be riskier than taking on a client that was perceived to be
public enemy number one to most Americans?).
In 2005, Hollander and her assistant in Teri (Shailene Woodley)
decide to deep dive into Salahi's case, but they soon discover that
visiting their client and actually obtaining evidence from the government
will be monumentally hard. Since
very little evidence exists to charge Salahi and keep him in
prison, Nancy and Teri see their opportunity to begin this case as a
habeas corpus one (simply put, the government would have to charge Salahi
or let him go).
Of course, Nancy
and her crew will face the challenge of Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict
Cumberbatch, commanding as always, but sporting an iffy and stilted
accent), who has deep personal ties to 9/11 and seems equal to the task of
taking on what he initially sees as an easy challenge to Nancy's case. Obviously, American legal power at the time meant that just
about anyone could be held against their will for any suspicious reason,
but as Nancy begins to probe deeper into the evidence presented to her the
prosecution in Stuart also begins to see the horrors that his own nation
have perpetrated on Salahi, which begins to taint his judgment as to the
worthiness of this legal endeavor. Stuart's
whole enlightenment arc is quite compelling here in the manner that it
forces this steadfastly proud military man that has sworn to defend the
honor of his country begins to have severe doubts that his country has
acted honorable at Guantanamo Bay. He
begins to receive some startling intel from one of his buddies (Zachary
Levi) that has some privileged knowledge of the comings and goings of
Salahi's case, but the more Stuart sifts through this new information the
more he begins to doubt Salahi's guilt and his own motives to prosecute.
I liked this
angle of THE MAURITANIAN that deals with the dissolution of confidence in
Stuart and his crisis of conscience, but the real emotional epicenter here
rests with Salahi himself, who went from innocent man to prisoner
overnight, and became a human punching bag for years while being exposed
to interrogation techniques of the most horrifying kind.
Macdonald makes some interesting stylistic choices here, as he uses
different aspect ratios to delineate between past and present (in a way,
utilizing a tight and constrictive 4:3 aspect ration for most of his
torture sequences helps to amplify the claustrophobic conditions he was
forced to endure - he was literally trapped and with no where to go).
All other scenes are film in widescreen, making the segueing back
and forth between time periods a bit more coherent.
The horrific montages contained within that portray the physical
and psychological atrocities committed on this poor man are hard to sit
through, but pack the necessary and appropriately appalling impact.
At the heart of all of this is Rahim's Oscar worthy performance as
Salahi, and it walks this delicate balancing act between showing him as a
pathetic beaten and batter victim and someone that's fleshed out and
relatable on human levels. THE
MAURITANIAN wisely understands that Salahi was not just a casualty
statistic of the indefensible treatment by the Americans, but was a man with a
life and a family that was abruptly uprooted from them and given
an absolutely raw deal for a decade and a half.
There are other
compelling story arcs built around Salahi, like Nancy being irresistibly
driven by this Herculean legal challenge with an icy cold and detached
resolve, only later to witness first hand through evidence the daily
horror show that her client went through for years.
This is juxtaposed nicely with Stuart's quest to lead the national defense
and represent American interests in the legal battle to come, stemming
largely from having a beloved colleague murdered during 9/11.
Like Nancy, though, he goes through a re-awakening while in search
of the truth. Both of them
occupy one of the film's most bizarre, but fascinating moments involving
the pair sitting down to beers at (of all places) the Guantanamo Bay
detention center gift shop. The
scene is memorable in two aspects: (1) It shows how unnervingly quaint and
normal things are on the outside of the Cuban prison facility (masking the
atrocities committed inside) and (2) It gives powerhouse industry
vets like Foster and Cumberbatch a crucial opportunity to play off of one
another while their characters express their respect in each other's
prerogatives in Salahi's predicament.
It's a great scene led by two great actors.
But, yeah, this
leads to my problems with THE MAURITANIAN: The sum of a few of its great
parts don't make for a thoroughly great whole.
Macdonald hits his stride with the sequences involving Salahi's
brutalization on the inside and competently navigates through the subplots
detailing both sides of the legal teams doing what they can to secure a
victory. There's also the
bravura manner that Macdonald seems to complete subvert our expectations
for a feel-good happy ending at one key moment by using a lightning fast
cut to black title cards that's like the worst kind of kick to the gut to
viewers (it's staggeringly effective in its irony and juxtaposition).
Unfortunately, so much of THE MAURITANIAN spins its wheels a bit
too gingerly as a courtroom thriller on autopilot, that really sticks out
with the screenplay's sometimes meandering tone and unwieldy
length (at nearly 130 minutes, the pacing at play here makes the film feel
twice as long at times). Some supporting characters are either miscast or very poorly
under developed as well, the former of which involves Levi as Stuart's
military buddy (the SHAZAM actor has an
appealing screen presence, but he's not credible as a twisted bureaucrat
that harbors some truly dark secrets).
And Shailene Woodley's Teri is a terribly marginalized character;
after being established as a fairly important power play to come on
Nancy's legal team defending Salahi (she's later dropped out of the film
completely and never to be heard from again for awhile). The Oscar nominated actress is sidelined with a nothing role
I'm on the fence when it comes to recommending THE MAURITANIAN. I appreciated the ensemble cast here (for the most part) and Rahim's potent performance kept me invested. And Salahi's unpardonable experiences at Gitmo are pure nightmare fuel that deserve to presented and known as part of a larger record to the mistreatment of prisoners of war by the U.S. government. His tale is one of unwavering grit and endurance; he went through something that most men could not...and should not have been put through. Perhaps most shocking is how Salahi was - via Nancy's tireless efforts - scheduled to be released in 2010 when the judge granted a writ of habeas corpus, but then had that decision overturned by the Obama administration, leading to Salahi serving the hardest of hard time for another six years. It's truly shameful to contemplate. THE MAURITANIAN taps into all of the mindlessness of this case and period in question, to be sure, and Salahi's story will stay with me even if this film built around him simply won't.