‘The Mauritanian’ Review

There’s a famous saying, reportedly from Josef Stalin, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” In Kevin Macdonald’s The Mauritanian, this logic is used in an attempt to reverse-engineer sympathy, and to reignite and relitigate the United States’ criminal actions surrounding the torture of inmates at Guantanamo Bay. As opposed to 2019’s The Report, which tackled similar issues in a broader sense, The Mauritanian chooses to focus on one specific case: that of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, an innocent man tortured for fourteen years without charge or trial. While Macdonald’s film is less impressive, visually or thematically, than its predecessor, it does manage to succeed on the strength of a few smart storytelling decisions and the powerful performances of Jodie Foster and Tahar Rahim.

In 2005, powerful defense attorney Nancy Hollander (Foster) agrees to take on the case of Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Rahim), an alleged al-Qaeda recruiter whom prosecutors believed was directly responsible for planning 9/11. Hollander doesn’t really care about the specifics of the case: she’s a conspiracy theorist who doesn’t trust the government, and the idea of pissing off the powers that be tickles her, even if her client is most likely guilty. However, as she begins to study the case and meet with Salahi, things begin to not add up. Salahi is, for one, a pacifist, who staunchly believes in forgiveness even if he now possesses a deep fear of the United States government. And the United States government seems to be desperately trying to cover up all files pertaining to Salahi’s case. Maybe they have a good reason to: after Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), the chief prosecutor on the case, has a chance to read the unredacted files, his conscience has a hard time letting him go through with it. And thus begins a years-long process on both sides of the judge’s bench to restore justice and right a massive wrong in American history.

The Mauritanian’s strangest, and therefore most interesting choice has to be its decision to hide exactly how guilty Salahi is, keeping audiences guessing until the final reveal if he’s being honest with his lawyers or not. It’s a decision that would make a lot more sense if the film were presented as a straightforward thriller, a la Primal Fear, yet director Macdonald opts instead to stage the film as a normal courtroom drama about wronged individuals (among other things; we’ll get to that). While framing the story in such a way is certainly a confusing choice, given Salahi’s revealed innocence, it does help build to a more coherent, moral theme: that no one, regardless of the crimes they may or may not have committed, deserves to endure the torture that Salahi went through. The fact that he was innocent (with the exception of joining the Mujahideen fighters during the same era the United States and Sylvester Stallone were supporting them) is simply an added condemnation to the practice’s immorality. Furthermore, the build-up to Salahi’s innocence makes his story arc – that of a man who, despite inhumane treatment and the destruction of everything he holds dear, manages to forgive his tormentors through prayer and love – that much more rewarding. Macdonald structures the film cleverly so that it shows us Mohamedou’s torture, shocks us with his innocence, and moves us with his compassion. It is, admittedly, a more thought-provoking, and therefore more moving order.

Of course, equally important in the film’s condemnation of torture is its actual depiction of the events at hand. As much as I love and prefer The Report for its breakdown of the torture program’s inhumanity and ineffectiveness, it is admittedly cold in its recitation of facts. The Mauritanian builds its case just as effectively, at first with hints and jokes before hitting us in the face with a sledgehammer. At first we only see glimpses of the program’s horrors – comments about how chilly the cells are during a routine visit, or quick cuts to hooks in the walls, or heavy metal playing off in the distance during inspections. To those unaware of the implications of these moments, it builds suspense and drama. To those who have read the Intelligence Report, it is nauseating and anxiety-inducing. The screenplay by M.B. Traven, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani also manages to, surprisingly, mine the idea of torture for well-executed, tasteful jokes – when Salahi scolds his cellmate for giving up names during a torture session, his compatriot reveals that he gave them the name “Omar Sharif” – which they accepted without hesitation. This is not only a solid moment of relieving tension, it also drives home the ineffectiveness of the program itself.

However, these moments are all table setting for the film’s climax: a harrowing, painful recreation of the physical, mental, spiritual, and sexual torture that Salahi underwent at the hands of the CIA and the United States military. The entire sequence is brilliantly – if horrifyingly – staged, from the disorienting editing to the immersive cinematography to Rahim’s pained reactions, and it really breaks down the dehumanizing effects of the experience. The closest comparison I can come up with is the scourging scene in The Passion of the Christin terms of the brutality of the human race. My only complaint about the sequence is one horribly distasteful moment in the middle of the scene, in which Mohamedou’s sexual abuse is intercut with a love scene with his ex-wife. Perhaps the moment is supposed to signify his mind slowly deteriorating under the strain of his disturbing ordeal, but it’s a moment that doesn’t work and is utterly distasteful in context and execution. Nevertheless, outside of that one terrible shot, it is an effective, horrific sequence that honestly should be required viewing for all Americans, alongside Schindler’s List and Twelve Years a Slave.

Now, Salahi’s story on its own would make for a terrific film, and I do appreciate Macdonald’s overall product. However, The Mauritanian as a whole suffers from an identity problem, because it cannot decide which story it wants to tell, and therefore it tells all of them. One minute, we’re watching Mohamedou’s story of torture and forgiveness. The next minute, we’re watching Nancy Hollander’s attempts to uncover a conspiracy. And the next minute, we’re watching Stuart Couch’s journey from prosecutor to whistleblower. It’s almost like someone jammed Serpico, In The Name of the Father, and A Few Good Men into a blender and set it on high. The end result is a decent, yet slightly incoherent final film. It’s not that all three of these stories aren’t interesting – there’s something worthwhile in all of them. It’s just that by presenting these stories out of order, overlapping with each other until we have flashbacks inside of flashbacks, it ultimately undercuts the film’s power, and makes it too difficult to understand for no reason. Honestly, as cliched as it is to say, I would have loved a miniseries on this subject. That way there could be an episode that focuses on each character thoroughly. Nancy Hollander certainly deserves such focus. She’s really a fascinating character – someone who doesn’t even believe her client is innocent, and slowly learns that he’s not only innocent, but is the victim of a heinous miscarriage of justice. It’s a fascinating arc, and one that could have actually provided a lens for the whole “Is he innocent or guilty?” game the screenwriters want to play. Alas, it was not to be, and Nancy’s story is blended in with all the rest.

Stuart Couch’s story is just as intriguing as Hollander’s, and therefore just as frustrating when you see it randomly inserted into the other stories on display. I was a little hesitant to enter into anything related to the Couch storyline. His very first scene tries to justify his decisions – and the government’s prosecution – through a one-on-one discussion with a 9/11 widow, complete with bad dialogue out of a bad 2002 Jerry Bruckheimer film. However, this is eventually revealed to be a feint, creating clever satire surrounding the fallacy of using 9/11 as a justification for many a bad decision. Whenever a character so much as asks for more evidence, or points out that legally, the case is undermined if the defendant is tortured, there’s always someone there, whether it’s a superior or a family friend, to immediately reply, “Remember BRUCE?!?” It helps to establish Couch’s mindset entering the case, and helps to demonstrate the understandable, yet ultimately toxic justifications we accepted in our quest for revenge. The film builds Couch’s ultimate defection rather wisely, as he grows more and more frustrated with blacked-out files, firings of his employees who provide the defense with the documents they’re entitled to, and the realization that the entire case is built on hearsay.

Not everything in Couch’s story is perfect. I would have liked more dark humor surrounding the idiocy of the prosecution’s office (“Why do we need more evidence than hearsay? That should enough!”). And the dialogue in the Couch sequences veers towards on-the-nose every chance it gets. But just like everything else in the film, it makes for an interesting story undercut by its own blended nature. That being said, I am willing to cut the entire film some slack for what may be the greatest use of postscript I’ve ever seen on film. I don’t want to spoil it for the viewers, but it’s such a brilliantly nasty, political declaration that undercuts the uplifting ending with horrific reality that it single-handedly raised this film a full letter grade in my eyes. Honestly, the entire film deserves to be seen just for that decision.

As for the acting, the film really rests on the power of Rahim and Foster’s performances. Tahar Rahim in particular is excellent in this role, portraying Salahi with a sense of lived-in humor amidst his trauma, and a wisdom beyond his years thanks to the power of his faith. Rahim’s performance is so good that he manages to make two scenes that otherwise wouldn’t have worked – a cliched moment involving Mohamedou leading a prayer for a fallen friend that inspires the jail, and a bit of forced comedy that I can only hope comes from actual court transcripts – feel both real and honest. Meanwhile, Foster is effortlessly charismatic as Hollander. It’s been so long since the last Jodie Foster performance (almost a decade, in fact), that it’s easy to forget how charming, detailed, and real she can feel in each and every scene. Foster plays the role as a cross between Paul Newman in The Verdict and Kevin Costner in JFK, with a hint of conspiratorial distrust that feels earned and natural. Foster and Rahim drive the film forward each and every scene, and I am wholeheartedly convinced that without them, this film doesn’t work.

Sadly, the cast surrounding the two leads do not share the sense of breathtaking mastery that the stars do. Shailene Woodley in particular feels completely miscast in the role of Teri Duncan, Hollander’s assistant defense attorney. Woodley is stiff and wooden in most of her scenes (a surprise, based on the breadth of her prior work), and really only comes alive in one solid scene where she grapples with the reality that Salahi might, in fact, be guilty. As for Benedict Cumberbatch, I do believe the British actor does a solid job playing a man who truly believes he’s a good guy and slowly learns that he’s not. But that being said, what the hell is Cumberbatch’s accent? Cumberbatch plays the role with an over-the-top Southern accent that sounds like a man who’d only ever seen Green Acres reruns, and while I’m not sure that this truly qualifies as being “miscast,” it does take you out of literally every scene.

The rest of the supporting cast is rather straightforward – in fact, the only bit part I technically remember is David Flynn’s Kent, who is either a terrific or terrible actor based on how grating the character is. He’s supposed to be that obnoxious bureaucrat who thinks he’s helping, but really isn’t, but I can’t tell how much of the obnoxiousness is intentional and how much is accidental. But finally, I want to talk about the performance of an unrecognizable Zachary Levi, who is brilliantly cast here as the villainous Neil Buckland. Levi plays Buckland as a sleazy CIA official who is good friends with Couch and who may have had a role in the torture program. It’s a mostly great performance, thanks to Levi’s ability to play the role as a good-ole boy American, a great commentary on the fact that those “average Americans” closest to us may harbor dark secrets and views, but the film weirdly stops dead in its tracks to give the character a redemption arc where he begins to feel bad about his actions, without repercussions or consequences. I’m not against three-dimensional characters, or characters who do heinous things finding forgiveness. But the arc as presented doesn’t feel earned, and it throws off the entire narrative of the movie.

The Mauritanian is an imperfect film. It resorts to the type of paint-by-numbers filmmaking we’ve come to expect from a film like this, and fails to find a way to elevate the material beyond what we’ve seen before. Still, there’s a lot to like. Those performances at the center are some of the most moving you’ll see in a long time, thanks to two actors in rare form. And it is undeniable that stories like this must be told. The United States has yet to fully grapple with what we’ve done as recently as a high school student’s childhood. If our culture is ever going to come to terms with our own sinful, immoral actions, we have to call them out by name and atone for them, regardless of who was responsible and who’s currently in power. That is what art like this is supposed to do: to make us think, and to make us reflect. More films are bound to come out about what we did during the Aughts. Many will certainly be better. But for an early attempt at cracking this story, you could certainly do worse than The Mauritanian.


The Mauritanian is now available to rent on most VOD platforms, and is also playing in a theater near you, if you have been vaccinated

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