The Mauritanian is Oscar-winning documentarian/director Kevin Macdonald’s latest feature and documents the shocking true story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a former suspected terrorist who was imprisoned for 14 years at Guantanamo Bay without ever being charged with a crime.
The film begins like a standard legal drama, as we see Slahi being arrested, his lawyer Nancy Hollander (played by Jodie Foster) being outraged by his case. We are introduced to Benedict Cumberbatch’s cookie-cutter prosecutor, Stuart Couch, who has been tasked with bringing charges against Slahi for his alleged involvement in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Shortly after all the pieces are lined up, the chessboard is abandoned for something that resembles a 2 hour exercise in American patriotism and an extremely dull lecture on habeas corpus.
The film continues following the disturbing events surrounding Slahi’s imprisonment, including his torture at the behest of the CIA and US Military whilst cross-cutting with Hollander’s efforts at granting him basic human rights.
Courtroom sequences, the crux of a legal drama and an opportunity for writers and actors to showcase their talents, are few and far between. There are a total of 2 courtroom sequences in the entire 2 hour 10 minutes runtime – lasting for a combined length of 5-10 minutes. The script is completely devoid of tension and the dialogue is stilted at best. Nowhere is there any appeal to greatness, humanity or even basic principles of law and order.
The best legal dramas like Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men or (my personal favourite film of all time) Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men take the audience captive with tension and exploration of justice alongside having convincing antagonists and impassioned yet grounded scripts. The Mauritanian has none of these things.
Instead it is a painful, mind numbingly dull and tedious trudge through stilted dialogue, uninspiring staging and cardboard characters that wastes a fantastic central performance by Tahar Rahim on a character with little to say or do. Even Jodie Foster comes across as bland whilst Benedict Cumberpatch is totally miscast.
Macdonald’s creative camerawork is commendable but the poorly structured script torpedoes any creativity the films better sequences showcase – namely a 10 minute torture montage that would make even Quentin Tarantino queasy.
The actual true story of Mohamedou Slahi is a deeply complex and outrageous affair that exposes American justice and foreign policy for the sham it was during the Bush era (and still is). Multiple films have attempted to shine a light on the CIAs human rights abuses and violations of the rule of law that go hand in hand with the illegal invasion of Iraq and “War on Terror”. However, what should be a “silver-bullet” opportunity for the medium of film to hold the American government accountable is wasted with a script that is more concerned with showing how “horrible” it all really is without actually coming down off the fence and putting its money where its mouth is.
It’s perfectly acceptable for a film to take a more mechanical approach to the CIAs actions. Scott Z. Burns’ 2019 The Report takes a retrospective view to CIA torture by framing its exposé around a senate investigation, managing to depict the inhumane torture through both detached and subjective perspectives whilst still retaining a strong moral core. Conversely, The Mauritanian wants to be a moral crusader without actually doing any of the crusading. Instead, it relies on the audiences preconceived views of the CIA to make the link between the depicted torture and human rights abuses.
This is seemingly by design because, as noted by producer Leah Clarke, the film had difficulty finding financing because “people didn’t want to go near it because it’s Guantanamo and too political, and too complicated.” This led the team to try and “convince them [financiers] that this was an uplifting movie, like Shawshank Redemption or Life is Beautiful.”
Clarke’s words epitomise everything wrong with this film. At the heart of this film there is an identity crisis. It cannot decide whether it wants to be a political thriller, a legal drama or a character study on virtue. This confused message is a result of its refusal to actually engage with the politics at its core.
My issue is not in its attempt to depict Slahi’s virtues but the fact that the filmmakers neglect to say anything about them. The confused message represents a fence-sitting affair that’s primary goal seems to be trying not to piss people off. There is no such thing as apolitical art and in trying to remain apolitical the film does a disservice to Slahi’s virtue by ignoring the reasons for his imprisonment and the more complex issues, namely that of America’s broken judicial system and abhorrent foreign policy.
The film also ends with a generic and nauseating appeal to American freedom, liberty, and justice which made me say “for fucks sake” out loud. The film goes one step further in its mission to piss me off by ending with a Bob Dylan song. Now, Slahi is very much entitled to his own happy ending listening to Bob Dylan but when placed in context of the song (The Man in Me) feels like a kick in the balls. Dylan, a well-known civil rights activist, would surely be ashamed to see his music used in a way that suggests what Slahi was put through is alright now because he’s home and free.
Ultimately, The Mauritanian is messy, mediocre and frustratingly generic. Not even Tahar Rahim’s talents can save this film from being one of the most boring, pedestrian and ultimately irritating legal dramas in recent years. A fascinating true story that should be approached with complexity and nuance is met with a hatchet job script that wastes any creative ideas the filmmakers have. Not even my irreverent hatred of the CIA can bring me like this film.
Don’t waste your time with this, watch Homeland instead.
The Mauritanian was released on Amazon Prime on the 1st of April.