Producers: Adam Ackland, Leah Clarke, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lloyd Levin, Beatriz Levin, Mark Holder, Christine Holder, Branwen Prestwood Smith and Michael Bronner Director: Kevin Macdonald Screenplay: M.B. Traven, Rory Haines and Sahrab Nashirvani Cast: Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zachary Levi, Soamer Usmani and Baya Belal Distributor: STX Films
After his election in 2008, Barack Obama was prevented from acting on a pledge he had made repeatedly during his presidential campaign: to close down the military prison at Guantanimo Bay in Cuba, where suspected foreign terrorists had been imprisoned after 9/11. The result was that while some of the prisoners were repatriated, many remained there for years without formal charges filed against them, and without trial. The extrajudicial aspect of Gitmo, as it was called, was, after all, one of its benefits.
One such prisoner was Mohamedou Ould Salahi, the titular Mauritanian, who was taken in for questioning by his country’s government in November, 2001, and turned over to American intelligence. After being interrogated in both Jordan and Afghanistan, with those “enhanced techniques” that have become infamous, he was transported to Guantanimo Bay in August, 2002, where he would remain until 2016, when he was repatriated to Mauretania.
The screenplay of “The Mauritanian” is based in considerable measure on Salahi’s memoir of his ordeal, which he began writing as early as 2005 and was published in 2015. When it concentrates on what he endured—through harrowing images of his torture, as well as depictions of his isolation—the picture has undeniable power, even if the sequences are fairly familiar from earlier films, because Tahar Rahim’s performance as Salahi is exceptionally nuanced and credible.
Much of the narrative, however, is devoted to the efforts of the lawyers active on either side of the case, who, in the final analysis, all acted with integrity. Assigned to prosecute is USMC Lt. Col. Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is initially determined to win a conviction since a comrade of his was killed on 9/11, but becomes increasingly concerned when the raw evidence is kept from him by superiors and, on the basis of what data he possesses, he concludes that the only basis for the charge that Salahi was one of the major planners of 9/11 was a confession elicited under torture. He therefore refuses to go forward with the case, angering military colleagues who see him as a bleeding-heart turncoat.
Salahi, meanwhile, is represented by Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster), a seasoned fighter for unpopular causes, working pro bono, and her younger colleague Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley). They must struggle to gain access to the government’s evidence, only to find it heavily redacted when they do. Still they soldier on despite all the obstacles put in their way, and succeed in gaining their client a hearing in which he can profess his admiration for the American justice system in its idealized form. That results in an order for his release—though in the event his actual departure was delayed for years afterward by the government.
“The Mauritanian” is a sincere, high-minded film, motivated by a desire to show the indomitability of the human spirit even in the face of brutal treatment, and the possibility of overturning a judicial wrong even against the heaviest of odds. And it boasts excellent performances, not only from Rahim, but from Foster as the plain-spoken Hollander and Cumberbatch as the conflicted but principled Couch (even if his accent sometimes goes awry). (Woodley, it must be said, is less successful, largely because the character she’s saddled with is such a naïf.)
But the movie never carries the dramatic punch it’s obvious straining for. One might complain that the screenplay never seriously takes up the issue of Salahi’s past, taking his protestations of innocence at face value. But even setting that aside, director Kevin Macdonald, whose previous films have been a variable bunch, doesn’t manage to invest the actions of the lawyers with much energy or suspense. He seems more interested in creating a mood of ordinary, frustrating nuts-and-bolts investigative work, with plenty of sequences of Hollander and Duncan going through box after box of useless records or of Couch being thwarted repeatedly in his search for original material—all true, perhaps, but rather dull to watch. The craft team—production designer Michael Carlin and cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler—are, apart from the hallucinatory montages of Salahi’s torture, equally devoted to that regimen of drab realism, and neither Justine Wright’s blunt editing nor Tom Hodge’s unexceptional score adds much vividness to the proceedings.
At the beginning and end of “The Mauritanian,” there is footage of the real Salahi back in his native country, celebrating his freedom and showing off copies of his book in its many translations. There’s an energy to these moments that most of the film lacks, and it’s difficult not to identify with his vivacity, no matter what the facts of his case might have been. To ignore what the film might have been in other hands is another matter entirely.