Movie Review: The Mauritanian

It’s hard to believe that former US president George W. Bush is now being seen as a moderate Republican but such is the state of the GOP these days.  In the aftermath of the horrific events of 9/11, however, this same man announced the country’s “War on Terror”, which saw the arrest or detaining of thousands of people who fit the profile of the hijackers (i.e., male and Muslim), or who may have had a hand in aiding bin Laden in Afghanistan or who sympathized with al Qaeda.  He authorised that a detention camp be set up inside the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba where, it was later revealed, at least 780 people were imprisoned.  Out of sight from the media’s watchful eyes, many of these men were subjected to extreme interrogation techniques that have since been well documented in a number of publications, senate hearings and movies.  One of those men caught up in Bush’s net was a soft-spoken engineer from Mauritania by the name of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who was held in Gitmo for 14 years, from 2002 to 2016.  Though he, too, was subjected to torture and other human rights violations, he was never charged.  While in detention, he wrote a memoire entitled Guantánamo Diary, which was published in 2015 after much litigation and negotiation.  His story is retold in the new film, THE MAURITANIAN.

The film introduces Slahi (Algerian-French actor Tahar Rahim, MARY MAGDALENE) just before he is whisked away from a family wedding in Mauritania to Guantanamo.  (In real life, Slahi was first taken to Jordan and then to Afghanistan before being brought to Gitmo nine months later.)  Languishing in prison without charge, his situation hits the radar of defense attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) who decides to represent him pro bono.  Along with her junior associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley, ADRIFT; THE FAULT IN OUR STARS; THE SPECTACULAR NOW), she heads to the prison to meet her client.  There, she finds an articulate, educated man whose “crime” is his guilt by association.  Over the years, Hollander and Duncan face numerous obstacles as the government tries to keep Slahi behind bars indefinitely. Meanwhile, their opposing counsel, military prosecutor Lt. Col. Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch, 1917; the AVENGERS franchise; THE CURRENT WAR; THE IMITATION GAME; AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY), uncovers evidence that Slahi’s confession was fabricated.  While he’d like to do the right thing and drop the government’s case against Slahi, his colleagues like Neil Buckland (Zachary Levi, SHAZAM!; TV’s THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL) feel the end justified the means.

THE MAURITANIAN is a story that is well suited for Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald, whose previous works covered the Black September terrorist group (ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER), Idi Amin (THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND) and Whitney Houston (WHITNEY).  Unfortunately, he’s let down by a script that doesn’t deliver a whole lot of tension.  It’s pretty hard to get the audience excited over watching lawyers pore over a roomful of box files containing heavily redacted government documents, trying to make sense out of those pitch-black lines and squares.  To his credit, though, Macdonald very wisely steers away from showing in lurid detail all the abuse that Slahi had to endure while in custody lest his film devolve into torture porn.  However, the closest the story comes to being interesting enough to sit up and take notice comes toward the end of the film when Couch and Buckland debate the merits of the abuse.  I assume that part wasn’t in Slahi’s memoire but added in here.

Dull story aside, Rahim is excellent, giving audiences a highly nuanced and authentic performance.  The actor, who has already won a César award for his role in A PROPHET, was nominated for a BAFTA and a Golden Globe for his performance here.  Expect to see him get an Oscar award one day.  That’s how talented he is.  His co-stars, unfortunately, fared less well.  Foster’s stiff upper-lipped performance was nothing we haven’t seen her do many times in recent years.  The Hollywood Foreign Press Association seemed to like it though, and they awarded her with a Golden Globe, a move that raised the collective eyebrows of just about everyone everywhere as she was not even nominated for an Oscar or a BAFTA.  (Is it any wonder that Hollywood is cancelling the HFPA?)  As for Cumberbatch, he’s a tremendously talented actor but doing a southern accent is not something he should be repeating anytime soon.  He was miscast here.  And don’t get me started on Woodley.

THE MAURITANIAN is far from being a horrible movie.  It’s just meh, which is a shame because it’s a good lesson in government overreach.  Check it out if only to watch Rahim’s performance.  The film opens in Hong Kong’s cinemas tomorrow (May 13).

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