The US government’s forceful methods are called into question in Kevin Macdonald’s legal drama The Mauritanian, which tells the incredible true story of a suspected terrorist’s detainment at Guantanamo Bay. Based on the protagonist’s bestselling book, we see Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim) imprisoned due to information suggesting his involvement in the 9/11 attacks. Still protesting his innocence three years after his arrest, he is represented by defence attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and her associate Teri (Shailene Woodley), while the military lawyer Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) heads up the prosecution.
Concerned with facts more than thrills, the narrative has a quite clinical approach to storytelling. As you’d expect, the premise is established, key characters are introduced one by one, and the procedural plot plays out in relatively dry fashion. There are a few misplaced attempts at humour in the script, but it’s mostly straightlaced in tone and always remains interesting without becoming exciting or even engaging. Towards the third act, a flashback technique is deployed to expose the torturous treatment that is dished out by the ruthless authorities to their captives. This well-executed, almost hallucinatory, sequence carries impact in comparison to the muted palette used for the rest of the movie.
In previous projects, Tahar Rahim has proved to be a charming, charismatic screen presence. There are glimpses of this energy in his leading role here but, a little like Salahi himself, he is shackled and restrained. Jodie Foster’s could’ve been a great performance, placed back into the territory of her most famous portrayal, examining an alleged criminal mind within a confined, claustrophobic space. She’s well cast as the cold, matter-of-fact lawyer but the material leaves a lot to be desired in the developing relationship between her and her client.
Director Kevin Macdonald has switched back and forth between fiction and factual filmmaking throughout his career. This begs the question of whether Mohamedou Ould Salahi’s memoir might’ve benefited from being adapted into a documentary piece rather than have three writers patch together a screenplay that’s bogged down in nitty gritty detail. The laborious nature of film means that, unlike the Guantanamo interrogation practices, The Mauritanian is very by the book.
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