A film review by Craig J. Koban March 18, 2021


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 Seidel

Directed by Kevin MacDonald  /  Written by Michael Bronner, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani

THE MAURITANIAN 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. 

THE MAURITANIAN 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 accolades. 

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 here. 

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. 

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