Review: The Mauritanian

STUDIO: STX Films | DIRECTOR: Kevin Macdonald | CAST: Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch, Shailene Woodley, Steve Marc, Zachary Levi
SPECS: R | 130 min. | Drama thriller

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  1/2

If you’re seeking a break from disturbing political acts, avoid The Mauritanian at all costs. It will take you back to the Dubya presidency, as well as certain aspects of Obama’s two terms, and make you feel –with apologies to the Dave Clark Five—not so glad all over.

That’s because the film is based on a true story by Mohamedou Ould Salahi, portrayed here in a knockout performance by French-Algerian actor Tahar Rahim (A Prophet). Based on Salahi’s book Guantanamo Diary, the film centers on the former Afghanistan freedom fighter’s 14-year imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay after the US government accuses him of recruiting people for the 9/11 terrorist attacks—and, in fact, being a key architect of those attacks.

Although he claims his innocence despite the fact there is evidence that he had contact with Osama Bin-Laden shortly before September 11, 2001, Salahi is tortured unmercifully by the military staffers who hope to gain his confession. At the same time, he keeps a journal of his horrific treatment.

Tahar Rahim is The Mauritanian

Enter crusading lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster, Elysium) and her green assistant Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley, Adrift). While investigating this habeas corpus case only, they turn up boxes of redacted notes that leads them to realize there’s a cover-up involved as they begin to seriously doubt the government’s charges against Salahi. Facing off against the attorneys is  prosecutor Lt. Stanley Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game) who, at the risk of being labeled a traitor and having his motives questioned by close ones and associates, questions certain elements of the case set forth by the Bush administration.

Scottish Director Kevin Macdonald, who has impressive, politically-minded features (The Last King of Scotland) and docs (the Oscar-winning One Day in September) to his credit, delivers about two-thirds of a disturbing real-life thriller with political tendrils that point to the post-9-11 hysteria orchestrated by George W. Bush and his acolytes, especially Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield.

The impressive part of The Mauritanian comes from the prisoner and prosecuting attorney’s side. Rahim’s performance as the accused Salahi is quietly charismatic and wily, and makes one’s opinions about his character’s involvement in the terrorist attacks shift back and forth throughout. Cumberbatch, impressively channeling Tommy Lee Jones, conveys the emotional dilemma his prosecutor has while finding faults in the case involving the death of one of his best friends, a passenger on the plane that hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

Not as successful are the parts involving Foster’s defense attorney, who has an artificially brusque way of doing business. The dialogue, credited to three screenwriters, is not nearly as strong as it is in the other segments of the film and Foster’s rhythm seems to be somewhat out-of-synch with her surroundings and other characters. Oddly enough, Foster seemed the same way playing a nurse in 2018’s off-the-wall Hotel Artemis, her last big screen acting outing.

Clocking in at 130 minutes, The Mauritanian could have been better off with some trimming. The extended tortured sequences are upsetting and go on way too long as does the film in closing things out. Macdonald’s arty instincts take precedence over tightening the screws at times. Ultimately, this dulls The Mauritanian’s impact although it still stands as a solid indictment in the invisible way American “business” is taken care of in the post-9/11 world—and, possibly, today.

About Irv

Irv Slifkin has been reviewing movies since before he got kicked off of his high school radio station for panning The Towering Inferno in 1974. He has written the books VideoHound’s Groovy Movies: Far-Out Films of the Psychedelic Era and Filmadelphia: A Celebration of a City’s Movies, and has contributed film reportage and reviews to such outlets as Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, Video Business magazine and National Public Radio.