Despite Tahar Rahim’s gut-wrenching turn, The Mauritanian never develops the gripping story it aspires to.
The Mauritanian should have been perfectly suited for Kevin McDonald; especially when considering his documentary film and narrative political thriller pedigree. The final result is a fact-based true story that ends up in cinema purgatory. It cannot locate the humanity of the subject outside of Tahar Rahim’s (The Eddy) gut-wrenching turn or the gripping storytelling it aspires to.
Rahim plays Mohamedou Ould Salahi, a man who was a detainee at the infamous Guantanamo Bay detention camp. The government may make the argument he was a prisoner of war, but the issue as he was never charged with a crime. Not a single one from 2002 to 2016.
Rahim’s only hope is tied to a defense attorney, Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster), and her skeptical associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), who takes on his case to fight his perceived injustice of holding individuals against their will without proper evidence and just a hunch. Standing in their way is military prosecutor, Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), who has a personal stake in seeing Rahim never leaves because he lost friends in the 9/11 attacks.
The Mauritanian is based on Salahi’s best-selling memoir Guantanamo Diary. The script adaptation has too many different fingerprints, to say the least. Instead of focusing on Salahi’s imprisonment and the visceral reaction created from injustice without being charged. Films like The Hurricane sound the political nature while never not making their protagonist the main focus.
The Mauritanian was written by screenwriter and journalist Michael Bronner (and a couple of others). He is too worried about trying to show a far-reaching conspiracy through deep political channels; we already know the issue, it should have been used as a backdrop. When the film gets to the big courtroom scene payoff, it comes off as confined, partially because it can’t set up properly because of this flaw in this script.
While McDonald does get quite a bit of cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler’s photography and some breathtaking visuals, he never sets the pace this conspiracy thriller needs, something that was never an issue with films like State of Play, but explicitly is a problem here.
There are strong points, particularly with its cast. It’s always a welcome sight to see Foster back acting in front of the camera (her first-time in three years since Hotel Artemis). She has no problem playing a strong figure that can move political mountains while the rest of the boys are trying to figure out their next move.
The film though is mostly carried by Tahar Rahim. An actor who has an extraordinary ability, which anyone who has seen 2009’s A Prophet can attest to this, he is magnetic and soulful. He manages to find benevolence in the smallest scenes and gentleness in the grand ones. It’s a gut-wrenching turn and one of his best.
The end result is a mixed one for The Mauritanian. The film tried to cut a larger piece or two of the story to make room for stars like Cumberbatch (a throwaway part whether it’s based on a real-life figure or not) and Foster, giving away some of the compassionate storytelling the final result of the story needed. When you lose that you also lose the gripping story the film aspires to.