Director: Kevin MacDonald Starring: Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch, Shailene Woodley, Zachary Levi Running Time: 129 minutes
With apologies for beginning a review on such a cynical foot, there’s something almost quaint these days in the kind of procedural drama that relies on shock and indignance at injustice for its narrative thrust. The ‘This Is America Dammit’ legal flick has always been a Hollywood staple, with layers of presentation, slicker, smarter versions like Erin Brockovich or Dark Waters do exist, but there’s usually the foundational principle of ‘This Isn’t Who We Are’ involved somewhere, which is harder for audiences to latch onto after so many years of exposure to the idea that injustice is exactly who people in power are, and they’ll just say it isn’t, and even when it’s exposed that it is, they just get away with it anyway.
The Mauritanian is a curiously timed screed against Guantanamo Bay, based on the memoirs of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who spent fourteen years detained in the prison camp without charge. The hardest blow this legal drama successfully lands is in pointing out that the sins of Guantanamo aren’t just tied to the Bush administration, but it’s a story that feels a little late in exploring, a 2021 release based on a 2015 book of a 2000s wrongdoing. And yet a high-profile member of the administration that followed the Bush crew is back in charge again, plus ça change. It’s the tone, rather than the subject matter, that means The Mauritanian leaves an impression of being dated, a film that for all its good impressions rarely manages to rise up to the jaded level of modern viewers. Carceral abuse? From the US government? First time, Kevin Macdonald?
It should be said that Slahi himself is an interesting subject to build a film around. Following 9/11, the US government track him down and lock him up due to some suspect phone contacts and his ties to the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s (just like, you know, the US government). Slahi is no Life Is Beautiful happy in prison type, but he has an affable nature. As played by A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim, he’s personable and charismatic, an easy figure to root for, and Rahim gives depths to the proceedings that aren’t necessarily there to be found on the page. There’s an edge to his voice, a slight screw-twisting in his interactions with his younger, more naïve legal counsel in Shailene Woodley, that dollops in shades of grey that are washed out by the film’s heavy hand and happy real footage of Slahi credits. Though Rahim is a highlight, by the story’s nature he’s a static figure, and so the drive of the story is left in the more conventional, and less engaging hands of his cases defense and prosecution.
Taking Slahi’s case pro-bono is Jodie Foster as Nancy Hollander, a by the book defense attorney who is operating more on the principle of the right to counsel, and sticking it to the admin, than actually believing in Slahi’s innocence, as her associate Teri Duncan (Woodley) does. Parallel to their efforts to sort through red tape and murky dealings is the prosecutor Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch – Benedict Cumberbatch in one of his thick Yank accents admired exclusively by casting directors.
Dunking on Cumberbatch online is an easy and overdone target, but it is hard to get around how miscast he is here. Couch is a southern, Christian, Good Ol’ Boy Scout, a well-respected Army official with a personal stake in getting involved in Slahi’s case, a close friend of his having been killed in the 9/11 crashes. He has a firm sense of who’s side he’s on, but is increasingly torn when he finds that that side evasive, illusive and insincere about the actual evidence for the case he’s trying to build. This parallel set up, with Foster and Cumberbatch both working towards the same understanding from opposite sides, is a strong idea, and would give The Mauritanian a solid structure. But Macdonald’s direction is slow and mostly straightforward, the story struggles to retain a cohesive hold on the attention as it spans over so many years, and the performances aren’t quite there when Rahim isn’t on screen. His chemistry with Foster is strong, and she nails the mix of Hollander’s righteousness and realism. Cumberbatch, however, just is not right for the simple sincerity for his character as written.
Couch is a Tom Hanks type, with a gentle paternalism and small C conservatism that Cumberbatch doesn’t really project and so the nuances of the character are lost to something much more one-sided. His side of the story provides a supporting performance from Zachary Levi as an untrustworthy colleague – roles like this are what character actors were made for, and Levi’s presence and performance just highlights the gap in actors of that type under a certain age gap; Hollywood hasn’t replaced the Coopers, the Fichters, the Tobolowsks, and now their parts are played by sidelined leading men like Levi, snarling and overstated. Woodley is likewise over-earnest. In a story about wanting to get out of Guantanamo Bay, the characters on the outside shouldn’t really be making the viewer wish we could go back there.
Clunky dialogue and cliches here are all the more frustrating for how they flatten the less conventional movie that is trying tentatively to break out. Flashbacks to Slahi’s treatment – all disorienting, quickly-cut, off-tilt angles – are undercut by many dull interrogation scenes, or the torture being replayed in the imagination of Foster and Cumberbatch, more about their shock than the victim’s suffering. Rahim is trying to give Slahi a 3-dimensional performance that the film, which brings him to a cuddly inspirational speech ending, is less interested in. There’s a justified sense of outrage that the film could have leaned harder into, its strongest moments come in this space, but are compromised by a hazier moral messaging and misplaced aims at a feelgood release. Rahim is refreshingly lively and human, and there are some feints at good ideas, but this is an otherwise stodgy legal drama that won’t last long in the memory beyond being an award season left-fielder.(2.5 / 5)