Engrossing ‘The Mauritanian’ forgets things that make good movies great

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There is a running thread of self-evidence that runs throughout many of the films chronicling American intelligence gathering in the post-9/11 era. Their principle preassumption — that rendition and torture are both immoral and counterproductive to their supposed aims — is well-founded.

However, that air of presumption often bleeds over into other basic elements of storytelling and filmmaking. Such is the case in “The Mauritanian,” a generally engrossing true story about a national stain that forgets, or glosses over, the things that make good movies great.

The titular protagonist is Mohamedou Ould Salahi (played terrifically by Tahar Rahim), and the film opens with Salahi being abducted from his Mauritania home by American agents in 2002. The narrative oscillates between Salahi’s Kafka-esque odyssey, which culminates with his 14-year imprisonment in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and the years-long efforts to free Salahi from custody. The story is told from three overlapping perspectives. Alongside Salahi’s hellish life at Gitmo, there is the work of his defense counsel, Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster), and the epiphany experienced by Salahi’s lead prosecutor, Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch).

[Disclaimer: I graduated with the same law school class as Couch from Campbell University, and it was admittedly a tad jarring, during a scene late in the film, to see the Oscar-nominated Cumberbatch wearing a Campbell Law School polo shirt.]

The film’s most intriguing components relay Salahi’s life at Gitmo, a prison erected along a Caribbean shoreline that is anything but an island paradise. Director Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”; “State of Play”) delves into the security levels of the facility, from the inmates’ carefully choreographed daily movements to the constrained access of people and papers flowing in and out of the prison. Meetings between detainees and their attorneys are time-limited. Letters sent in or out, even the handwritten notes taken by the lawyers, are screened by government officials to excise any allegedly classified or sensitive information. 

When Salahi refuses to confess any involvement with planning the 9/11 attacks, the initial derogatory, heavy-handed interrogation by FBI agents takes a far darker turn when he is turned over to military authorities. An extended montage captures the physical and psychological torture that Salahi suffers, including acts of sexual humilitation and being taken out on a boat for a mock drowning execution.

Still, that segment occupies 5-10 minutes of screen time. The remainder of “The Mauritanian” depicts the actions of its principal characters without explicating their background or underlying motivations. Hollander, a high-powered civil attorney, is driven to take a sabbatical from her law firm and volunteer to represent Salahi, in the face of blowback from corporate clients and the public, well, just because. Hollander’s young associate (played Shailene Woodley), initially eager to help represent Salahi, gets cold feet after she reads Salahi’s tainted confessions, well, apparently because in her world lawyers never represent guilty clients. Couch, who lost a close friend during the 9/11 attacks, undergoes a crisis of conscience — one decidedly not shared by his military superiors — as he delves deeper into the government’s case, well, just because. The filmmakers, who correctly posit the horrors Salahi suffers and his overarching innocence of the allegations against him, do not effectively resolve why Salahi furiously deletes his mobile phone contacts when apprehended, previously traveled abroad to train with Al-Qaeda, and was evidently connected enough that he once received a call from a telephone associated with Osama bin Laden.

These are deficits of character and plot development, and while these shortcomings do not detract from the film’s main thrust, they do undercut the film’s thematic breadth and effectiveness. “The Mauritanian” features a top-shelf performance by Rahim, but the reminder is a humanitarian procedural that does not inject itself with enough humanity.


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