Movie Review: The Mauritanian

The Mauritanian is a political and legal drama based on the 2015 memoir ‘Guantanamo Diary’ by Mohamedou Ould Salahi. The adaptation directed by Kevin Macdonald, tracks Salahi’s experience of being held for 14 years without charge at the infamous internment camp. There has been some coverage of what happened at Guantanamo Bay with particular focus on the inhumane interrogation and torture tactics and techniques. The Mauritanian takes a more intimate approach by journeying with one of the inmates instead of taking a fixed outsider’s perspective.

The Adam Driver-led drama, The Report, did a great job of representing the cover up from within the CIA as an independent audit investigation recovered reams of documentation revealing some of the oversights and blind justifications in the post 9/11 era. Following the terror attacks, the US did everything in their power to gain intelligence, detaining suspects and using unethical methods to extract information and coerced confessions. Taken under duress, much of what was extracted wasn’t useful and upended American values when it came to human rights and dignity. While powerful and as brutal as Zero Dark Thirty, the frame of reference was still largely American.

That’s what is so refreshing about The Mauritanian. Kevin Macdonald isn’t afraid to represent the travesty of justice from the subject’s viewpoint. While the drama isn’t bold enough to take this vantage point exclusively, positioning Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley and Benedict Cumberbatch as tentpoles to access Salahi – it’s a step in the right direction. Taken from Salahi’s bestselling diary, it functions more like a Dead Man Walking type drama with other influential game players.

Foster has been a bit quiet on the acting front lately, taking on more work as a director in recent years, yet delivers a thoughtful and well-composed performance with a stark change in hair colour. She’s not there to offer an accurate portrayal in terms of capturing Nancy Hollander but rather an empathetic take much like Michelle Monaghan did in Saint Judy. Cumberbatch is always a good bet and doesn’t disappoint in an uncharacteristic down-the-line average joe role. Woodley is a welcome addition to the cast but it’s Tahar Rahim who gets a full showcase as Mohamedou Ould Salahi. From imprisonment and torture to testimony, his performance is the soul of The Mauritanian, echoing his career-defining turn as Malik El-Djebena in French crime drama A Prophet.

“This is strictly behind closed doors!”

The Mauritanian is mostly about the performances and the powerful true story. While it seems earnest, there’s a distance as if no one truly wants to own this story. The subject matter is difficult given the blight on the American flag, so while Woodley and Foster add some American presence, you can understand why there’s hesitation. Director Kevin Macdonald was probably considered for his unflinching work with The Last King of Scotland and legal drama State of Play. While a significant talent, this film is more generic and in line with his submarine thriller, Black Sea. While there are some glimpses of greatness and more expression in the nightmarish torture scenes, it’s all rather straightforward and bland.

Shot in South Africa, a versatile film location that lends itself to creating multiple international destinations, perhaps this contributed to a debased feeling. As good as the recreation of Guantanamo Bay and various meetings is, referencing dates and places to anchor the story, it lacks a sense of style. The perfunctory nature of the film-making doesn’t match the passion or intensity of the performances. This vague retelling doesn’t capitalise on the suspense of the interrogation or seesaw on the detainee’s actual or perceived status like Hugo Weaving did so brilliantly in The Interview. Downplaying matters may add more integrity as a docudrama but steals away some of the panache or intensity The Mauritanian so desperately needed.

As convincing as the performances are, everyone’s operating at an arm’s length not giving the audience enough impetus to invest. The lack of connection points with characters leaves everything in limbo like Salahi’s dire situation. This makes for a frustrating and disengaged experience, giving one just enough information to follow the trail of breadcrumbs but never really promising the gingerbread house. Rahim and Foster’s purposeful performances claw back our attention as the true power of the true story dawns, but it’s just not gripping enough. Still, the importance of the revelation and adaptation hold weight as do interactions with the real people behind this embarrassing and costly oversight just before the credits.

The bottom line: Distant