Synopsis: A detainee at the U.S military’s Guantanamo Bay detention center is held without charges for over a decade and seeks help from a defense attorney for his release.
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley, Tahar Rahim, Zachary Levi
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Running Length: 129 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: While I wouldn’t say the topic of The Mauritanian is something to get excited about, the release of it is because it signals another big screen (or small screen depending on your COVID-19 comfort level) appearance of Jodie Foster. The notoriously picky Oscar winning actress doesn’t show up much in front of the camera these days, preferring to sit in the director’s chair more than anything else and while I appreciate the work she’s done for television and movies I do miss seeing her…she’s one of the best. Foster returned (the same weekend The Silence of the Lambs turned 30, by the way) with this true-life story that casts her in a supporting role as famed criminal defense lawyer Nancy Hollander. Even though many may be wary of another heavy-handed 9/11 political thriller, thanks to a powerful lead performance and assured direction this is one that should be given consideration.
Based on Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s best-selling 2015 memoir Guantanamo Diary, which was infamously released with a number of the pages heavily redacted (it was later re-published with all of the redactions fully restored), the film sets out to tell Slahi’s story from a mostly bipartisan standpoint. Shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States, Slahi was an electrical engineering student going to school on scholarship in Germany when he returned home to Mauritania for a wedding. It was there the local police detained him after suspecting Slahi of ties to Al-Qaeda through his cousin and other loosely laced evidence that could easily be explained had he been given the opportunity. This was 2002 and was only the beginning of a 14-year fight for freedom that would stretch across two presidential administrations, several countries, and many legal challenges.
By 2005, Slahi (Tahar Rahim) had been incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay without being charged with a crime and subjected to the interrogation techniques that would be the downfall of several leading military officials. Taking on the defense of a suspected 9/11 terrorist might seem like poison to an established professional like Hollander (Foster, Carnage) but something smells off to the seasoned attorney and she isn’t scared off by her disapproving colleagues or a stern military prosecutor (Benedict Cumberbatch, 1917) out to thwart her progress. Working with junior associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley, The Fault in Our Stars), Hollander meets with Slahi who might be the most dubious of all about her prospects at success. Over time, she begins to win his trust as they begin to make the mightiest argument of Slahi’s life so he may reunite with his family and have his freedom restored.
Plenty of films have been made about the horrors that occurred at Guantanamo “Gitmo” and wisely director Kevin Macdonald (Whitney, How I Live Now) and screenwriters M.B. Traven, Rory Haines, Sohrab Noshirvani avoid making the focus of the film on that aspect of Slahi’s experience. Instead, they shift the attention to Slahi’s current encounters with his attorney’s as well as detailing how he was moved from Mauritania to Gitmo. Though Macdonald wants to frame some of this in mystery at times and adds some flash by changing the aspect ratio of the film (less obvious in a home viewing experience, probably), The Mauritanian is one of those experiences that works better when it sticks to the facts and tenets of straightforward narrative. It’s when the Macdonald jumps around in the timeline that it becomes hard to follow and track. For this film in particular, losing the thread of where we are in the overall Slahi lifecycle can set you back a few precious minutes.
Where the film is receiving the most notice are the performances of Rahim and Foster and I can’t help but agree that both are shouldering most of the weight, with a slight edge going to Rahim considering he’s the de facto lead of the film. Rahim is able to take Slahi from an idealistic young man to a unjustly kept detainee without the urge to instill a bitter bite to his delivery. Like the real Slahi who miraculously kept a positive outlook throughout even the worst of his low points, Rahim’s chin is always up and squared with his belief that he will be proven innocent. Sporting a white-blonde wig and the reddest lipstick that’s just ever so slightly imperfect, Foster gives Hollander knowing authority and never backs down when challenged. It’s exactly the type of role we want to see Foster chew on, and she happily snacks away…but does it with her mouth closed because while she takes big bites out of scenes, they aren’t obnoxious ones.
The supporting players are a bit all over the map. Like she did within the cast of TV’s Big Little Lies, Woodley shrinks a bit when sharing the screen with more dominant females, eventually fading from view and memory. In a small role that turns pivotal somewhat out of the blue, Zachary Levi (Shazam!) reminds you of John Krasinski and makes you wonder if Macdonald didn’t have that actor in mind originally for the part. Levi is fine for the requirement but is missing some of the easy-going guard-down charisma someone like Krasinski could have brought to it. Then we have Cumberbatch in a downright crazy wig and an even more eyebrow-raising accent. Both don’t do him any favors and it’s another case of wondering if the actor wasn’t a last-minute replacement for someone else or if it was just a bit of casting that didn’t go as planned. Scenes that should crackle between Foster and Cumberbatch only fizz and it’s largely because Foster is working harder than she has to as a way to make up for Cumberbatch’s lack of vigor.
While I wouldn’t rush out and line-up The Mauritanian for a Friday or Saturday night selection, this is a solid choice for a Sunday afternoon or mid-week bit of entertainment. The story is quite a ride and kudos to the filmmakers for doing their level best to leave major politics at the door for what is ostensibly a movie all about political maneuvering. Both Bush supporters and Obama fans will come away with something to grumble about, I’m sure, and that will lead to a good discussion…so be sure to choose your movie watching party carefully!