Film Review: The Mauritanian
Director: Kevin Macdonald
In Theaters: 02.12
I’m going to start off this review with the warning that, while I don’t exactly hide my political views in general, I feel that to review The Mauritanian in anything other than the most cursory manner requires taking the gloves off. So much has happened in the past four years, things have gone so far off the rails in terms of sinking to unfathomable lows for the American government, and many of us are so angry that it’s surprisingly easy to look back on the first decade of the century with a slightly rose-tinted view, though we never would have thought so at the time. The Mauritanian served as a sobering reminder that I was outraged long before Donald Trump was even a TV star, much less a political figure.
The Mauritanian is the true story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahir Rahim, Mary Magdalene, The Eddy), who was detained and imprisoned at Guantánamo by the United States government for 14 years, without any charges, under the belief that he was a recruiter for Al Qaeda. Slahi finds allies in defense attorney Nancy Hollander (two-time Academy Award Winner Jodie Foster) and her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley, Divergent), who battle the U.S. government in a fight for justice that tests their commitment to the law and their client at every turn. They’re pitted against a formidable military prosecutor, Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Academy Award nominee Benedict Cumberbatch), who had a friend aboard the flight that hit the second tower, giving him a personal score to settle—but he begins to ask some big questions himself.
Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play) is a highly skilled filmmaker, and he doesn’t miss a beat with The Mauritanian. The pacing is strong, and the cast is excellent with Foster, who has always been a favorite of mine, giving her best performance in well over a decade. Cumberbatch is honestly even better, though it’s decidedly a supporting role, and it’s to his credit that, as a producer on the film, he didn’t vainly push for more screen time. Rahim is the true lead here, and he is first-rate, making a phenomenal impression in a star-turn role. The rest of the supporting cast, including Woodley at her most likable and Zachary Levi (Chuck, Shazam!). The script by M.B. Traven, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani is effective, and while the film is likely to get brushed aside as being a fairly conventional legal drama, it’s a good conventional legal drama that accomplishes everything it sets out to do and tells an important story.
The sequences of the torture and abuse that Slahi endured are brutal to watch. Yet there’s no question that Macdonald goes easy on us, showing enough to make us outraged but not so much that it risks losing viewers. The shocking human rights violations that occurred in the name of the War on Terror are an unconscionable stain on this country’s history, and they didn’t even accomplish the objective. The movie states that case eloquently, rightfully placing the blame on the Bush administration but dealing with the uncomfortable truth that while the “enhanced interrogations cease and the number is comparatively small compared to the height of its infamy, GITMO still holds detainees to this day.”
The Mauritanian is a highly satisfying and exceptionally well-made film. It shares a powerful message, not only about the strength of the human spirit but of the responsibility America has as a nation to live up to the lofty ideals and claims of being the land of the free and the home of the brave. Most importantly it conveys that whenever we talk ourselves into believing that the end justifies the means, we inevitably lose sight of the end itself. –Patrick Gibbs