The Mauritanian Review
Published on March 14, 2021
Rating 3 /5
Walking the line between political bureaucracy and inhumane torture, The Mauritanian is the true story that tries so hard to be a damning critique of the American response to 9//11 yet comes up so standard in its staging. Based on the memoir Guantánamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Salahi, the film depicts the agony and torture that Salahi went through when unfairly accused of playing a part in the September 11th attacks. His story is one that is ugly and uncomfortable but an important reminder of how inhumane acts of torture for the sake of patriotism are a disgusting aspect of America’s military imprisonment. Well, at least it would be if the film were more about Salahi than the legal fight going on outside his cell.
The issue with such a film is that it veers off course in an attempt to be more all-encompassing but also feature bigger names. Taking on Mohamedou’s case is defense attorney Nancy Hollander, played by a determined and powerful Jodie Foster. Opposing her case is Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch, played by Benedict Cumberbatch trying to cake on a Southern accent to portray a believable American. Hollander has a few meetings with Mohamedou that are strong moments but for the most part both her and Couch are seen in this film thumbing through documents, trying to crack the case of missing evidence from Guantánamo Bay.
The film is a mixture of half their struggle and half the introspective sorrow of the imprisoned Mohamedou. Tahar Rahim really shines in this performance by pushing himself through the physical and mental anguish of feeling starved and isolated. His moments of trying to connect with another prisoner he can only hear carry the emotional weight of reliving life outside and how hopeless it may be to ever see again. Suicide becomes more appealing day after day when it seems like no end will come for the crushing tortures of the cold, loud, and cruel walls.
And yet we don’t get as much of that story. The Mauritanian feels like a battle between both a cerebral drama of inhuman torture and a stirring political drama of corruption within the military. Either film could be strong but both feel watered down when competing for the screen in just a little over two hours. Both have to fight for the screen in what leads into the anticlimactic trial of Mohamedou, so brief it’s reduced to one monologue.
The whole film only feels as though we’re getting brief glimpses of the overall picture rather than a more personal one. The trial, for example, shouldn’t have been the finale. Even after Mohamedou was found not guilty, he was still held in Guantánamo Bay for another eight years. This fact is reduced to a mere epilogue in which the trial outcome is immediately skipped over for the emotional return home. Why don’t we get that additional eight years of continued agony in isolation? Must such a story be so easily reduced to such an easy ending?
Despite these flaws, The Mauritanian is still a pleasing picture for what it does have to offer in terms of its performances and provocation. Foster brings her A-game to portraying Hollander as a dedicated lawyer who is willing to throw away her reputation and her social perceptions if it means an innocent man can be freed. Cumberbatch is hard to swallow for forcing that accent but he eventually settles into the role enough where it doesn’t hinder the patriotic concerns of the true figure. Rahim also melts into the role of Mohamedou with an astounding level of dedication to portraying the man both imprisoned and haunted by his past, descending into a waking nightmare of torture with every day in prison.
There’s some value to a film such as The Mauritanian that digs into an issue that is not as distant as it may seem. It’s a painful reminder of how easy it is to cover up injustice in the name of appealing to patriotism while showcasing the human toll it takes on those wrongfully imprisoned. It’s a strong subject that’s only given a decent film adaptation with the prospect of becoming something more.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.