The Mauritanian Synopsis: A defense attorney (Jodie Foster), her associate (Shailene Woodley) and a military prosecutor (Benedict Cumberbatch) uncover a far-reaching conspiracy while investigating the case of Mohamdedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim), a suspected 9/11 terrorist imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for six years.
Unearthing a potent true story comes with its own set of responsibilities for filmmakers. Whether they are dedicated to a living subject or a revealing slice of history, directors must balance their craftsmanship objectives with the weighty truths existing under their story’s surfaces. As a narrative filmmaker and documentarian (Whitney and The Last King of Scotland), director Kevin Macdonald is no newcomer to these inherent challenges.
Macdonald’s latest effort, The Mauritanian, offers a sturdy and empathetically-drawn portrait of a man trying to overcome the US’s broken politicking. Even despite some workman-like trappings, Mohamdedou Salahi’s timely story leaves a potent impact.
Based on Salahi’s memoir Guantanamo Diary, Macdonald constructs a capable ensemble piece around his resonant true story. His no-nonsense delivery favors hard-hitting journalism over Hollywood melodrama, skimping past mechanical screenwriting contrivances to tap into the pertinent issues at hand. Macdonald also boasts a keen ability to keep information flowing in an engaging light. The three-arch structure moves at a steady pace while never discombobulating the bevy of factual developments in the process. As each discovery builds upon the last, Macdonald develops a taunt momentum that thankfully never drifts into exploitative territory.
The Mauritanian evokes its most eviscerating frames through its intimate look inside Mohamdedou’s tumultuous journey. Employing a tightened aspect ratio and a myriad of kinetic edits, Macdonald skillfully conveys the character’s perspective as he endures a series of dehumanizing exercises in captivity. These challenging sequences could easily fall flat in less capable hands, but star Tahar Rahim never strikes a false moment as Mohamdedou. Rahim’s effortless ability to elicit expressive emotions allows the character’s torment to take center stage without showy speeches.
Mohamdedou makes for roughly a third of The Mauritanian’s runtime. While these frames are expertly crafted, the dissident structure left me wanting more from the film’s relatively timid delivery. Screenwriters Michael Bronner, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani mostly settle on surface-level ruminations amidst the split narratives, with the competing lawyers serving as ciphers for a few sanctimonious dialogue deliveries (its potent thematic messages are clumsily spelled-out for audiences).
I credit Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch for elevating their thinly-drawn roles (Foster’s vulnerable connection to Mohamadedou registers a few impactful frames), but the characters operate as obvious amalgamations of their respective beliefs. It’s clearly a film made with sensitivity and respect for its subjects, although the inherent earnestness leaves some untapped dramatic potential.
The Mauritanian admirably critiques the United State’s post-911 frenzy, an era where the government senselessly searched for cathartic revenge at the cost of all civility and legality. While there’s some distracting heavy-handedness, Macdonald’s steady touch highlights this problematic era with frightening relevance.