The Mauritanian is the true story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, a Mauritanian man who was detained in America’s infamous Guantanamo Bay detention camp, without charge, for a total of 14 years. The film is based on Mohamedou’s 2015 memoir, Guantanamo Diary.
Starring Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley and Benedict Cumberbatch, it is presented – rightfully – as a critical examination and condemnation of US government policy post September 11, and like so many anti-war films before it, it casts a very big shadow over the practices and methods given to the military, as well as the implementation of classification. It is in and of itself a very potent and powerful story, which ought to elicit emotion and anger from its viewer, and yet the delivery is something of a mess.
The film begins in 2001 with Salahi visiting his home to celebrate a family wedding, after having spent several years living in Germany. He is met by CIA agents and asked to join them for questioning. Cut to 2005 and his case is brought to the attention of Nancy Hollander (Foster), a tenacious defence lawyer with a history of civil rights activism. She takes it upon herself to defend Salahi, despite the appearance of guilt, as a principled decision to ultimately protect constitutional rights. With the assistance of Teri Duncan (Woodley), a young and impressionable lawyer, they embark on a gruelling endeavour to take on the US government and are stonewalled by an endless procession of bureaucracy and an inability to access vital classified information. Cumberbatch plays Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Couch, a military lawyer serving as prosecutor, who has personal ties to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The director is Kevin Macdonald, whose name comes with a certain amount of prestige having earned accolades from films such as Touching the Void and The Last King of Scotland. He returns to the political thriller genre, which he explored effectively in his 2009 film State of Play, however, unlike said title, The Mauritanian lacks the cinematic veneer that bonds images to the screen, resulting in a wash of beige and the absence of allure.
Given the nature of the story and its reliance on testimony from Salahi, the film pin balls between time frames and jerks us between stages of his incarceration. The past is represented by a 1:33:1 aspect ratio (square box), whereas the present is signified by a broader 2:35:1 (widescreen), and while the distinction between moments in time is appreciated, the constant jerking of format ultimately serves as an irritant. Add to that some very peculiar directorial decisions, such as having characters make occasional eye contact with the camera and an array of awkward camera angles that distract from the unfolding drama. There is no denying Macdonald’s aptitude as a filmmaker and the intentions behind these creative choices are easy to comprehend, but because the film is a patchwork of disjoined styles and commentaries, it’s hard to deny that The Mauritanian is a definite misfire.
Foster provides strong leadership with a performance that is not far removed from the stoic intelligence of her career-defining turn as Clarice Starling, and with several scenes showing her inside the narrow confines of the detention centre, many viewers will cast their minds back to that seminal Oscar-winning performance. Roles like this are what she does best and her knack for pegging down such indifferent characters qualifies her as the film’s standout quality. Rahim is also convincing as the ever-suffering detainee whose question of innocence or guilt is overshadowed by the greater issue of torture and coercion. He balances the scale of good vs evil very carefully and helps drive the film’s greater political censure of two government administrations.
Furthermore, the rest of the supporting cast are very good with Zachary Levi (Shazam!) adding to the impressive list of players with a welcome extended cameo as an intelligence agent who serves as a sort of gatekeeper to the prosecution’s access to highly classified documents. Corey Johnson also appears as a high-ranking office to Cumberbatch’s character and helps create a greater sense of distrust and conspiracy within the military ranks.
Despite its important subject matter and its reliable performances, The Mauritanian misses the mark thanks to a bland and uninspired production design and a disjointed collection of editorial styles. It was produced by the team who made the films United 93, The Green Zone and Captain Phillips, and perhaps what this film is missing (and those films each have) is the presence of director Paul Greengrass at the helm. I imagine he would have delivered a sucker-punch of a film, as opposed to a proverbial patchwork quilt that’s frayed at the seams.
‘The Mauritanian’ will be streaming on Amazon Prime Video from March 24th.