The Mauritanian (2021) Review
A HARD-HITTING (YET MEANINGFUL)
POLITICAL LEGAL DRAMA
As many theatrical feature film endeavors have delved into fictional arena to find its narrative storytelling, others have taken strides into the more “real world”, with various accounts (albeit through a cinematic filmmaking lens) of depicting / examining lives and events of world and how sometimes the truth (the real truth) comes to light, which has been overlooked and / or suppressed due to its implications surrounding it. Taking on big corporations, exposing a hidden truth, or revealing an unspoken revelation, these narratives ring true within their dramatic storytelling, which is aided by its “based on a true story” framework; adding credence and palpability within its tale. Of course, Hollywood (over the years) has taken an interest in these narratives; producing such films like Zero Dark Thirty, Spotlight, The Report, Vice, Concussion, Dark Waters, and several others. Now, Topic Studios, STX Films, and director Kevin Macdonald present the latest feature to tackle (or rather “uncover”) the hard truth of the detention treatment of Guantanamo Bay in the mid-2000s with the movie The Mauritanian. Does the film find merit within its truth or is it a far cry from real happened?
Several months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred, Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim) is collected from his home country of Mauritania, soon imprisoned at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Placed inside a dank and windowless cell, Salahi is kept without charges under the suspicion of being connected to Al Qaeda and several individuals involved to the 2001 terrorist attacks on the US. In 2005, news of his case reaches ACLU lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster), who senses something different about this case and in Salahi’s history, accepting the challenge to free a man accused of being a 9/11 recruiter for Osama bin Laden. Joined by assistant Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), Nancy delves into the case, only to learn government officials aren’t eager to provide the necessary information pertaining to Salahi’s treatment while inside the camp. Meanwhile, representing American interest is Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), who has personal ties to the 9/11 attacks and is eager to challenge Nancy as he commences his own investigation into Salahi’s time at Gitmo, learning more about the controversial practices that the prison utilizes.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Borrowing my words from my review of the 2019 film Dark Waters for the opening paragraph (and this one) …. while I do love a good fictional cinematic narrative (no M what genre it comes from), the idea of a “real life” tale (adapted as a feature length motion picture) has always intrigued me as I usual tend to gravitate towards such projects. While there have been many “based on true story” type of endeavors (again, from different styles of film genres), the narratives of either uncovering the truth and / or taking on the establishment (i.e. the government or big corporations) has been a singular point of interest; finding the “hard truth” buried underneath coverups and legal matters. Maybe because these truths are usually something “big” and that have shocking revelations applications that many do now know; exposing true deed…whether good, bad, or informative. All of this is wrapped in the guise of a dramatic storytelling with the film bringing a “cinematic quality” of real-world events. Again, it’s just something about it that I find fascinating.
This brings me back to talking about The Mauritanian, a 2021 legal drama endeavor that seeks to uncover the truth behind Mohamedou Ould Salahi and his time spent at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. To be honest, I really didn’t hear much about this movie. Not a whole lot of “buzz” during the late 2020 season and not much coverage about it on the film websites / blogs that I frequently visit for film and movie upcoming / tidbit news. That was true until I saw the Golden Globes nominations a few months back and I can across one of the movies on the list was The Mauritanian in the category of best actor and actress. Personally, just by the name of the film alone…. I thought of the line from 1997’s Titanic when Kate Winslet’s character Rose says “I don’t see what the fuss is about. It doesn’t look any bigger than the Mauritania” and Billy Zane’s Cal responds “You can be blasé about somethings, Rose, but not about Titanic. It’s over 100 feet longer than Mauritania and far more luxurious”. So, with that in my mind, I thought that The Mauritanian (judging from the name alone) was kind of being some kind of period piece drama about the ship mentioned in Titanic. Clearly, after watching the movie, I was quite wrong about that assumption…haha! I did check out the film’s movie trailer and it looked a bit intriguing, but I had a feeling that it was going to be difficult to see due to the on-going shuffling / delaying film projects because of the COVID-19 pandemic. After that, I really didn’t hear much about the film until the Golden Globes aired and that actress Jodi Foster won Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture drama. Thus, I was bit more curious to see the movie and it so happened that the film was playing at the one local movie theater that was I still open. So, on my next day off from work, I decided to check it out and purchase a ticket to see The Mauritanian to see if the story of the feature was good and if that Foster was good in the role to win the Golden Globe. Was it and was she? Well, yes and yes. Despite a few minor complaints, The Mauritanian is quite a powerful and poignant legal drama feature that delivers on its examination of Guantanamo Bay during the mid-2000s era as well as humanity found in not giving hope. The edges of the film are a tad bit rough, but the large bulk of the feature is profoundly solid and grippingly entertaining in cinematic legal storytelling.
As a side-note, I do know that The Mauritanian is based off of Mohamedou Ould Salahi’s 2015 memoir “Guantanamo Diary”, but (unfortunately) I didn’t get a chance to read it. Although, after viewing the film, I might have to check it out and give a read some time soon. Nevertheless, this review of the movie is gonna be solely on what I saw in the feature film and not so much on what was added and / or cut in the translation between page to screen.
The Mauritanian is directed by Kevin Macdonald, whose previous directorial works include State of Play, The Eagle, and The Last King of Scotland. Macdonald hasn’t certainly done a wide variety of feature genres from documentary, political thriller, period piece, and a few others. Thus, Macdonald makes the jump into the foray of legal drama with The Mauritanian and does so with a good job in helming this particular project. In truth, Macdonald keeps a steady course throughout the movie; blending three separate storylines into one cohesive narrative. This is perhaps the more intriguing part of Macdonald’s film technique with the feature; shaping the movie into an interwoven plot between its various characters. It’s an ambitious idea and one that mostly pays off in the film, with The Mauritanian producing an engaging and gripping storyline that excels within its subject as well as the acting talents involved (more on that below). To me, I didn’t follow the news much on the real-life events surrounding Mohamedou Ould Salahi. So, I was quite keening and heavily interested into the movie, with Macdonald slowly revealing his backstory that leads to the film’s “big reveal” moments in the third act. What’s more interesting is that Macdonald has no qualms in expressing Salahi’s story; exposing the truth behind his time at Guantanamo Bay and the implications made under the Bush and Obama administration. The end result is something that proves to both insightful and entertaining for a cinematic endeavor.
Naturally, Macdonald isn’t afraid to display acts of aggression and horrific events within his features that makes us (the viewers) feel queasy and / or uncomfortable (see The Last King of Scotland) and does so with several poignant scenes in The Mauritanian. Pulling from Salahi’s real-life experiences and the memoir he published in 2015, Macdonald showcases the abhorrent and almost disturbing treatment of Mohamedou has to endure through his elongated tenure at Guantanamo Bay. It’s no big secret that during the mid-200s that the tactic usage of interrogations methods with detainees at Guantanamo Bay were horrific and almost inhumane and Macdonald seems to hone in on that fact in his depictions of what Salahi went through. As a word of caution, these depictions of interrogation in the movie are not for the faint of heart. In addition, Macdonald punctures the film with plenty of government polices and red tape that go along with these interrogation methods (as seeing in the film) and it does ponder the questionable methods that the US government utilizes in the name of freedom. It definitely goes “hand-in-hand”, with many arguing over the inhumane tactics and others methods, including holding individuals without cause for years, while others will say it is for the best for the nation’s populace in their security / freedom. It’s a question for the philosophers out there.
In its presentation, The Mauritanian is a solid one with the feature feeling like it is a well-made theatrical endeavor. Naturally, while this movie is more focused on its narrative pieces and character-built drama, the film’s setting and background isn’t a heavy hitter. That being said, what’s presented in the film definitely works, with the filmmaking team depicting (effectively) the various locations (i.e., lawyer’s offices, courtrooms, and residential homes) in a realistic / organic way that adds more of a hint of realism with its gritty story, while the stark and almost unhospitable locations utilized for Guantanamo Bay prison detention camp. Thus, the feature’s “behind the scenes” team such as Michael Carlin (production design), Michele Barfoot (set decorations), Alexandra Byrne (costume designs), and Alwin H. Kuchler (cinematography) do strengthen the feature’s through their visual efforts on this project. Lastly, the film’s score, which was composed Tom Hodge, gets the job done with an even-keel musical composition throughout the feature. One particular moment of where Hodge’s score excels is towards the end of the feature that has character Salahi delivering a speech. A beautiful scene that is accomplice by a moving score piece.
There are a few minor criticisms that I had while watching The Mauritanian that, while not completely derail the feature’s palpable narrative, does create a sort of unevenness in a few areas in the film. Perhaps the one that stands out the most is in the layering of the three storylines threads into one cohesive narrative. While I do appreciate and admire that interwoven plotlines to fully realize the implications and revelations made into Salahi’s case and his time at Guantanamo, the way how Macdonald and his film editing team can’t quite measure how to determine when to connect some of the narrative threads. One can tell by simply watching the film and notices that the movie is a bit unbalanced on how weave in and out of the Hollander’s case, Couch’s investigation, and Salahi’s flashback. Again, this does not derail the movie, but does create a few moments of pacing issues along the way. Then same can be a little bit said about the film’s ending. There is a definite end point where Macdonald concludes the feature, but it’s a bit choppy and kind of feels like its sort of “glued together” in a piecemeal way. Plus, the actual “trial” of Salahi in the movie, the one that the entire film builds to, isn’t really shown. Granted, I understand that Salahi’s trial was heavily documented and covered by the media when the event occurred, but for those who didn’t exactly follow story the (like me), the whole feature builds to this crucial moment and then sort of “skip out” on the bulk of it. Additionally, it seems that Macdonald wants to stay something important during the film’s final moments (and he certainly does), but kind of has a hard time sticking his landing on those points.
Perhaps a more secondary blunder that the feature can’t escape is in the genetic make-up of the legal drama narrative. While Macdonald make the movie stand out within its source material and within its acting talent involved, the framing of the film is structured in the standard of various legal dramas. Thus, there is a sense of formulaic notion within the narrative of The Mauritanian, with the screenplay being played by Michael Bronner, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani chosen a somewhat straightforward “by the book” narrative to follow. Basically, if you’ve seeing any other legal dramas like Just Mercy, Spotlight, or Dark Waters, you’ll get an idea of where certain plot points are going and how they will happen, with The Mauritanian facing similar problems in the variety of challenges and setbacks that the characters face along the way (i.e., cover ups, pushbacks, withholding information, etc.). Again, I kind of knew that this was going be the case with the film, so it didn’t bother me as much. However, a little more finesse in trying to “shake things up” from the status quo in the narrative path realm could’ve made the movie slightly better.
What definitely overlook those criticism remarks is in the feature’s cast, with the talent selected for The Mauritanian being a solid collection of actors and actresses to play the feature’s various character, especially in the main players of the film. Leading the charge (and perhaps getting the most notoriety for the movie) is actress Jodi Foster, who plays the character role Nancy Hollander. Foster, known for her roles in The Silence of the Lambs, Contact, Taxi Driver, has certainly made a name for herself in her career and is customary for to pick particular roles that have some grit / substance in neither the character of story. In this case, it’s perhaps a bit of both, but leaning towards more of the latter in my opinion. As Hollander, Foster is great and certainly knows how to make the character quite memorable; demonstrating her acting skills in a very steely demeanor with plenty of resolve with her “bite”. As I said, the character (or rather story surrounding Nancy Hollander) has plethora of substance and it makes for something great scenes for her to play in. Naturally, she’s more of secondary main player in the film, but Foster is incredible solid as Nancy Hollander and find that she certainly deserves the Golden Globe award for her part in The Mauritanian.
While Foster might be have gotten the Golden Globe nomination (and won) for her role, actor Tahar Rahim is perhaps the best that The Mauritanian has to offer, with his character portrayal of the feature’s main focal point of the story Mohamedou Ould Salahi. Known for his roles in Day of the Falcon, The Past, and A Prophet, Rahim is quite an adept actor that many would believe and is almost like the “hidden gem” of the feature. Yes, he might not have the overall “star power” than most of his co-stars on The Mauritanian, but Rahim is incredible to watch throughout the movie. While the character could’ve been played in a somewhat “straightforward” way of a shattered detainee looking for resolve to his case, Rahim makes Mohamedou a very really and multi-faceted individual to follow from opening scene to end credits. Its quite a demonstrating of Rahim’s acting; showcasing plenty of sarcasm, humor, fear, paralyzing, sadness, hope, and humanity within his portrayal of the character. In hindsight, even though he was nominated for a Golden Globe in this role, I personally think that Rahim should’ve won for his portrayal of Mohamedou Ould Salahi. Props to him!
In the third main lead role is Cumberbatch, who does certainly (like Foster) anchor the feature as being a more prominent / seasoned acting talent involved on this project. Known for his roles in the Marvel movies as Dr. Stephen Strange (Doctor Strange and Avengers: Infinity War) as well as Sherlock and Star Trek into Darkness, Cumberbatch is great in the role Couch, a steely yet conscious man who is determined to uncover the truth behind Salahi’s case, and one can tell that he makes the feature better with his involvement. However, it is a bit odd to hear Cumberbatch uses a a American accent to his portrayal of Couch. Yes, one can still hear his signature gravel like voice, but it can be jarring at first to hear Cumberbatch having more of a southern American drawl. It doesn’t bother me as much…. just a bit of adjusting to as I haven’t heard Cumberbatch use that particular character voice before. Still, regardless of that, he was terrific as Couch and, while he might be the least impactful in The Mauritanian (versus against Rahim and Foster), his acting and participation in the feature is quite memorable.
In the supporting cast, actress Shailene Woodley and actor Zachary Levi fill the roles of the characters of Teri Duncan and Neil Buckland. Woodley, known for her roles in The Divergent movies as well as The Fault in Our Stars and The Descendants, is perhaps the weakest character in the movie. It almost seems like Macdonald (and the screenplay writers) didn’t know how to her handle the character of Teri and ultimately makes the character rather forgettable and less than important than the other main lead characters. Additionally, while I am not knocking of her acting talents, but of all the main players in The Mauritanian, Woodley is certainly the least experience. Overall, Woodley’s Teri is okay, but the character just seems like an afterthought in the movie. Levi, known for his roles in Tangled, Chuck, and Shazam!, fares better than Woodley in the film and does a good job in playing the character of Neil, a man who seems to be one the “keepers of secrets” in Crouch’s investigation. While the character isn’t that well-evolved beyond being a plot mechanic (i.e., pushing the narrative forward), it is a bit surprising to see Levi, who is known more for his comedic charm, plays a more serious role than what he’s use to playing. Thankfully, Levi is up to the task and certainly pulls it off; making him more memorable than Woodley. Rounding out the cast is actor Corey Johnson (Captain Phillips and United 93) as Bill Seidel, actor Saamer Usmani (What/If and Succession) as Arjun, and actor Denis Menochet (Inglorious Basterds and In the House) as Emmanuel in several minor character roles; most of which are limited by the screen-time, but the job done and are mostly elevated by their acting talents.
To get to the truth behind Mohamedou Ould Salahi’s crimes and his time spent in the Guantanamo Bay’s detention camp, activist lawyer Nancy Hollander and Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch undergo their own personal investigations into the matter in the movie The Mauritanian. Director Kevin Macdonald’s latest film takes a look into Salahi’s time in the US custody at Guantanamo Bay and the story of how those who fight to clear his name in the name of justice. While the film does stumble slightly in a few areas, the large bulk of the feature soars; producing a movie that meaningful (yet entertaining) due to Macdonald’s directing, a gripping story, a poignant meaning of discussion of the film’s subject matter, and a solid cast, especially in the film’s main leads (Rahim, Foster, and Cumberbatch). Personally, I liked this movie. It was definitely interesting and had a solid story to tell (very poignant and eye opening) and the film’s cast was great. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is a very favorable “highly recommended” as the feature delivers on being an informative endeavor that succeeds in entertain viewers as well as being a poignant meaning within the narrative context. In the end, The Mauritanian is a great film that is bolstered by its hard-hitting truth at a detainee during his time at Guantanamo Bay and the steady hand from the feature’s director and its magnetic lead talents.
4.2 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)
Released On: February 12th, 2021
Reviewed On: March 8th, 2021
The Mauritanian is 129 minutes long and is rated R for violence including a sexual assault and language