Workman-like isn’t a compliment when it comes to film, but that is the best way to describe Kevin Macdonald’s The Mauritanian. Anchored by an exceptional lead performance from Tahar Rahim, the film hits the general beats you expect it to hit. With few exceptions, nothing occurs out of the ordinary and the film ends much like you would expect.
Without the stellar cast and prestige sheen, this film brings nothing new to the table, despite bringing to light the horrors our government brought in order to achieve a level of security our country was looking for.
Based on the true story, Rahim portrays Mohamedou Ouid Salahi, the titular Mauritanian. Salahi has a second-hand connection to Osama bin Laden, so he is brought in by his government for questioning in late 2001. In 2003, attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and her associate Terri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) begin preparing a habeas corpus petition on Salahi’s behalf, since he never had a trial and has been imprisoned without charges.
Meanwhile, Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) is on the other side of the law; charged with prosecuting Salahi for his role in the 9/11 attacks. Couch has skin in the game as his friend from his aviation days died as one of the pilots of the planes.
Hollander and Duncan travel down to Guantanamo Bay to visit Salahi and officially represent him. He agrees and is encouraged to send letters to the pair describing his treatment in the time we see him detained at the opening of the film, to the present day. The film cuts back and forth between the present day legal proceedings and Salahi’s treatment and interrogations along the way.
No big surprises arise when a film is in the midst of trying to build a legal case. The grunt work Hollander and Duncan go through is extensive and Duncan begins to become emotionally attached. Hollander is nothing if not detached. Her entire approach is not to question Salahi’s guilt, but to deliver the American legal process to all, regardless of guilt.
Foster delivers solidly in a more stern role than you expect from her. The two-time Oscar winner works so infrequently, it’s easy to forget how natural an actor she can be. Hollander is not a showy character and Foster doesn’t do too much with her characterization. When she does express some emotion, Foster gets her chance to shine. Woodley gets less to work with, as Duncan is a nothing character. She is more of a thematic ideal of a lawyer with wide-eyed optimism and an open heart. I don’t fault Woodley; there just isn’t much of the character there.
Cumberbatch has a much more meaty role as the man who is expected to dole out justice but begins to question what role his government has played in Salahi’s detention. Couch is a moral man who wants to get this one right for his departed friend. But, the more he uncovers, the worse he feels about it. The film focuses on him just as much as it focuses on Salahi.
The character does begin to wear as Couch continually annoys his friend, who happens to be in the upper echelons of the government (an unfortunately accented Zachary Levi) to get the information he needs to prosecute Salahi, but what he uncovers is much more nefarious. Cumberbatch plays repressed anger better than anyone, but Couch doesn’t feel angry, rather over-righteous. He feels miscast.
Rahim electrifies the screen in a way you don’t expect. The character he ends up as at the end of the film is miles different from where he started at the beginning. His growth (or degredation) as a character is slowly and a piece at a time. It feels like Macdonald had a great idea and a great character in Salahi and put all his efforts into pumping up him and his scenes. As a result, the film with the other three characters feels muted.
The film eventually reveals Salahi’s torture, and it is (no pun intended) tortuous. To say the best part of the film was the torture sequences can come across as disingenuous, but the sequences are electric and purposefully drawn out. Rahim is drained of all will and determination and shows true physicality in his performance. The torture is portrayed as so heinous, the film forgets to ask heavier questions and relies on the horrors to push opinions in the desired direction.
Macdonald is such an expressive director when it comes to the tension and chaos of the torture sequences, but he loses all the energy when he returns to the courts and offices of the real world. Strong work from Rahim and Foster can only do so much when the film shifts tones so often. A powerful story and great performances can only do so much.