'The Mauritanian' Review

Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch star as lawyers on opposing sides of a habeas corpus case in Kevin Macdonald's drama based on the memoir of a longtime Guantánamo Bay detainee, played by Tahar Rahim.

Kevin Macdonald has sensational nonfiction material in The Mauritanian, based on the best-selling memoir Guantánamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who spent 14 years incarcerated at the U.S. Naval Base in Cuba without ever being charged with a crime. Macdonald is an exceptional documentary maker (Touching the Void) with a more uneven track record in narrative features (The Last King of Scotland is probably strongest among them), and this legal procedural remains strangely flat, despite its star power and a gripping central performance from Tahar Rahim as Slahi. An unimpeachably well-intentioned treatment of a dark chapter in American justice, it's methodical and serious-minded to a fault.

The STX Films release is admirably forthright in indicting not just the George W. Bush government that authorized interrogation methods clearly in violation of human rights — arguably Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's most shameful legacy — but also the Obama administration that followed and failed to close the detention center. The stain on both Republican and Democrat governments is an important point, even if the film does not address the congressional restrictions that blocked Obama's commitment to shut down Gitmo.

Adapted by journalist Michael Bronner (under the pen name M.B. Traven) with Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani, who collaborated on the Amazon/BBC crime series Informer, the screenplay opens with a festive wedding ceremony in a tent on the beach in Mauritania. It's November 2001, just two months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and Mohamedou has returned home after years of study on an electrical engineering scholarship in Germany. When local police ask him to accompany them to be questioned by American authorities, Mohamedou's mother (Baya Belal) looks stricken. Despite her son's reassurances that he'll be back soon, she seems convinced she'll never see him again.

Aside from the suspicious act of deleting his cellphone contacts, the evidence against Slahi is largely circumstantial — primarily a phone call and money transfer to his cousin, a highly placed al Qaeda operative. Slahi's own trips to Afghanistan to join the jihadists date back to early in the conflict, when the aim was to topple the communist Najibullah government, an effort supported by the U.S. (This latter detail is not made clear in the script.)

Slahi ends up being transported to Gitmo. More than three years later, word surfaces in the German press that he is suspected of being among the key 9/11 organizers, specifically of having recruited one of the pilots. Though no formal charges have been made, the accusation is fueled by testimony from a Yemeni jihadist who spent one night in Slahi's apartment in Germany.

While the filmmakers stop short early on of taking a definitive position on Mohamedou's involvement in the 9/11 plot, the information is framed in such a way as to support his innocence. That has no bearing, however, on the decision of Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster), a partner in an Albuquerque, New Mexico, law firm, to take on his habeas corpus case as a pro bono job. Her colleagues are against it, but she points out that the U.S. government is holding upwards of 700 prisoners at Guantánamo with no trial, taking junior associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) with her to interview Slahi.

At the same time, the U.S. is getting anxious about the backlog of 9/11 investigations that needs clearing. In the first case for which the death penalty will be sought, the administration recruits Lt. Col. Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) to lead the prosecution against Slahi. Photographs and documents linking him to several main terrorist suspects prompt one official to observe: "This guy is the al Qaeda Forrest Gump." Couch's close friendship with a Marine Corps buddy killed on United flight 175 makes him eager to take on the case.

The point is made that the raw response of America to the tragedy of 9/11 fed a hunger for rough justice that circumvented acceptable standards of due process. But all this is set up with insufficient flair or narrative propulsion. In scenes showing both the defense and the prosecution questioning Mohamedou, only the prisoner emerges as a character with any real shading.

Despite the novelty of Cumberbatch sporting a thick Louisiana accent, both he and Foster play steely, principled arbiters of the law who are pretty much interchangeable — he's a religious man, she's not, is about the extent of their differences. And Woodley is given little to do beyond providing the smiling, approachable counterpoint to Nancy's stern professionalism, until public fallout from their involvement in the case causes Teri to get jittery. As a strategic source close to Couch, Zachary Levi's character has even less depth.

Much of the action lingers over the U.S. government's secrecy surrounding the investigation, with files either withheld for extended periods or released in heavily redacted versions that disclose nothing. That stasis is not particularly dramatic.

The chief interest comes from flashback interrogation scenes, first with civilian investigators grilling Mohamedou using good-cop tactics, and later by the military, who remove the kid gloves. The torture scenes leave nothing to the imagination, lurching into horror territory as they reveal sleep and food deprivation, physical and psychological abuse, sexual humiliation and explicit threats to the prisoner's mother. As punishing as these scenes are, they will be unsurprising to anyone who has followed editorial coverage of the "special projects" methods cleared by Rumsfeld. What's perhaps most shocking is that Slahi survived 70 uninterrupted days of that treatment.

Unlike Camp X-Ray, a 2014 fictional drama that depicted the hesitant friendship between Kristen Stewart's young Guantánamo Bay guard and a longtime detainee played by Peyman Moaadi from Iranian Oscar winner A Separation, there is no central relationship to give The Mauritanian a compelling human focus. It's remarkable given the movie's often almost clinical detachment that Rahim (so memorable in Jacques Audiard's A Prophet and Asghar Farhadi's The Past) creates such a fully dimensional character. There's a kind of sorrowful poetry to this man, notably as he reaches for a connection with a fellow prisoner, a French national unseen behind barriers in the exercise yard in a handful of scenes.

But those moments are the closest the script comes to shaping an emotional thread after the fraught farewell from Mohamedou's mother at the start of the film. And given the travesty of justice he has endured, his appearance via video in the concluding courtroom interlude is anticlimactic, though it has more impact than developments with the characters played by Foster, Cumberbatch or Woodley after details of Mohamedou's ordeal become clear. Composer Tom Hodge's score works hard for feeling that just isn't there in the dull writing.

Cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler captures the claustrophobic atmosphere inside the detention center effectively enough, in contrast to the liberties of Naval officers surfing the waves off the coast. But the film's most moving moments by far come in footage of the real Slahi over the end credits, displaying a resilient spirit that in most people would have been crushed. Those clips suggest that Macdonald might have been better off applying his considerable skills as a documentarian to the rich potential of this subject matter. 

Production companies: STX Films, 30West, Topic Studios, Shadowplay Features, Sunnymarch, Wonder Street
Distributor: STX Films
Cast: Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zachary Levi, Saamer Usmani, Baya Belal
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Screenwriter: M.B. Traven, Rory Haines, Sohrab Noshirvani, based on the book
Guantánamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi
Producers: Adam Ackland, Leah Clarke, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lloyd Levin, Beatriz Levin, Mark Holder, Christine Holder, Branwen Prestwood Smith, Michael Bronner
Executive producers: Micah Green, Daniel Steinman, Dan Friedkin, Michael Bloom, Maria Zuckerman, Ryan Heller, Zak Kilberg, Russell Smith, Robert Halmi, Jim Reeve, Rose Garnett, Robert Simonds, Adam Fogelson, John Friedberg
Director of photography: Alwin H.
Production designer: Michael Carlin
Costume designer: Alexandre Byrne
Music: Tom Hodge
Editor: Justine Wright
Casting: Nina Gold
Rated R, 129 minutes

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