The kinds of stories being told in the two decades since the 9/11 attacks have expanded into a certain sub-genre of films utilizing more hindsight in their approach, including Gavin Hood's 'Official Secrets,' Scott Z. Burns' 'The Report,' and a new addition in Kevin Macdonald's newest project, 'The Mauritanian.'
The name Kevin Macdonald might not immediately ring a bell, but you're probably at least somewhat familiar with his work. He is most known for his documentaries, including One Day in September' about the murders at the 1972 Munich Olympics, as well as 2012's 'Marley' and 2018's 'Whitney (about Bob Marley and Whitney Houston respectively). But Macdonald has also dipped plenty of times into feature films, between 'The Eagle,' 'Black Sea,' and even directing Forest Whitaker to a Best Actor Oscar in 'The Last King of Scotland.'
With 'The Mauritanian,' Macdonald was working to adapt Guantanamo Diary, the 2015 memoir by former detainee Mohamedou Ould Salahi that became a best-seller and led to a lot of public exposure at how Guantanamo Bay was being run in the 2000s. For as flashy as some of his projects could feel, I still was intrigued by how Macdonald could approach the story and bring it to audiences, especially with some of those aforementioned dramas providing some groundwork.
What do we get as a result of that effort? Honestly, it's a bit of a disappointment. 'The Mauritanian' suffers from a bit of an identity crisis that I, unfortunately, pinpoint to Kevin Macdonald himself. In attempting to give the movie a sense of cinematic swell, the movie ultimately loses a lot of the thematic staying power it could have had. That's not to say the story isn't told well or the cast isn't giving an effort, but it is to say that it should be a lot more focused and poignant than what the project's best moments deliver.
In 2001, Mohamedou Ould Salahi (played by Tahar Rahim) is brought in for questioning under suspicion that he was responsible for recruiting the 9/11 hijackers. Believing he isn't giving them the full story, he is transferred to Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba under CIA jurisdiction. His interrogators become increasingly violent, including resorting to torture techniques, all while Salahi was never officially charged with any crime while detained.
By 2005, Salahi's case reaches the desk of Nancy Hollander (played by Jodie Foster), a human rights lawyer who sees the case as a clear violation of habeas corpus. She travels to Guantanamo Bay with her associate, Teri Duncan (played by Shailene Woodley), where they have several, highly supervised meetings with Salahi. Though he is skeptical, Salahi agrees to let Nancy represent him pro bono and begins to open up about his years of confinement.
The film also shows the parallel story of efforts to prosecute Salahi, led by Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (played by Benedict Cumberbatch). As both sides dig through mounds of highly redacted evidence and case files, Salahi's case suddenly becomes far more than just his own story, revealing Guantanamo at the center of a larger, more disturbing conspiracy.
'The Mauritanian' is certainly giving a clear effort to live up to its potential and a lot of that rests on two of the ensemble performers, those being Jodie Foster and Tahar Rahim. I'm guilty of this as well, but it's almost easy to take Jodie Foster for granted as an actress, especially given her limited on-screen roles in the last decade. But the character of Nancy Hollander (who is based on the equally fascinating real-life attorney) does have a lot of appeal to her.
She does appear, at first to be our moral center of the movie, striving for truth of the law at any cost. Yet every once in a while, Foster dips into her tool belt with a look over the shoulder or a hesitation in a line delivery that brings some of that subtlety to the surface. It's one of those performances that becomes pretty standard otherwise,
Instead, that emotional anchor is reliant on Salahi himself and I give all the credit to Tahar Rahim for this performance. I honestly wasn't all that familiar with his other work (Jacques Audiard's 'The Prophet' might be his most notable), but he is the biggest reason that this film holds together at all.
For all of the baffling decisions Kevin Macdonald makes in navigating this story, he gives the utmost attention to Salahi as a character, exploring the true trauma, sadness and pain he had to go through, but with an underlying humanity through all of it. Salahi's journey is shown in incredible detail in an effort to show not just the inhumanities suffered, but also the phycological damage, the progressive lack of hope, and the confusion about what to do with that trauma.
I only wish the movie itself had actually stuck to that kind of through-line. The problem with 'The Mauritanian' is that, in trying to shine its light on this one case, becomes too much for itself to handle. The movie actually moves pretty well through the first third of the movie, until it starts to widen it's scope, seemingly taking cues from the aforementioned 'The Report' in trying to in indict the larger causes of the United States revenge-laced reactions post-9/11.
But that focus doesn't always work; 'The Report' worked because of the combination of Daniel Jones as a distinct audience surrogate and Scott Z. Burns' direction/writing that knew how to move him through the story. With 'The Mauritanian,' Tahir and Foster do wonders with what they're given, but the movie wants to be Salahi's story AND the United States government's story without the pacing, framing or focus to pull it off, at least to the degree that it wants.
***(SLIGHT SPOILER: This only becomes more apparent in the film's credits, where the overlapped footage of the real-life Salahi and Hollander gives so much genuine warmth, you'd almost wish Macdonald had just stuck to doing a documentary).***
The rest of the film is pretty hit-or-miss as a result. Cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler and composer Tom Hodge almost feel like they're working overtime to push the emotion along because the script can't keep up. The supporting cast (Woodley, Cumberbatch, and Zachery Levi) mostly come out of this alright, even if you get the feeling that some of them deserve more exposure within the story.
All that is added to the film's third act that might be the film's most polarizing aspect, a mixture of hauntingly brutal revelations and courtroom legalese that is either going to rip out your heart or solidify your disappointment (or somewhere in between if you're like me at all).
Does 'The Mauritanian' live up to its material and story? Not quite, but that's not to say it's not worth exploring. Even beyond Jodie Foster and Tahar Rahim's excellent work, the film still has enough substance and intrigue to discuss, it's just not always framed well as a feature film. This is a story that needed to be told and we need more stories around this to help push justice forward. If 'The Mauritanian' can be that step for wider audiences, then it certainly is a good effort, just not the most gripping.
Overall, I give 'The Mauritanian' 6/10
'The Mauritanian' is in select theaters beginning on February 12, 2021.
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