Despite Rahim’s best efforts, The Mauritanian fails to bring anything new to the familiar thematic and historical territory it recycles.
Kevin Macdonald’s The Mauritanian is one of those ripped-from-the-headlines dramas that feels somehow both too soon and too late: the story it details is too recent for the film to work as any sort of curtain-pulling of forgotten history, yet behind enough to negate its ability to have any real effect on the issue it’s trying to shed light upon. The “enhanced interrogation” abuses of the Bush administration and the black site horrors of Guantanamo Bay have been well documented over the years, even as they continue to this day, but The Mauritanian itself almost seems like a relic of the Bush era, an exposé-tilting film attempting to spotlight the gross human rights abuses of Guantanamo Bay and the War on Terror.
A spate of recent films has focused on such mid-aughts American horrors — The Report, Vice, and Camp X-Ray took the narrative route, while Taxi to the Dark Side and The Unknown Known are among contemporary documentaries tackling such subject matter. And while The Mauritanian shines a light on a true story which only really resolved within the last three years, it fails to bring anything new to this already well-worn territory. The film centers on Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim), a Mauritanian national spirited away to Guantanamo Bay and held for years as a suspected key player in organizing the 9/11 attacks, a crime for which he was never charged and for which the US government had little evidence. Jodie Foster co-stars as Salahi’s idealistic lawyer Nancy Hollander, a woman who uncovers the US government’s utter lack of proof of Salahi’s guilt, but who is constantly hindered from accessing any information that could possibly dispute the government’s flimsy prosecution strategy of “well, 9/11 happened and we all saw it and this guy happened to be somewhere in the Middle East at the time.” The prosecution is led by Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch, with a questionable southern accent), an army lawyer whose unwavering faith in the righteousness of the United States government begins to unravel when he realizes just how desperately the administration wants to punish someone, anyone, for September 11, not out of any sense of justice, but as a PR victory in a never-ending psychological war being fought on multiple fronts.
Macdonald is a capable dramatist of recent history, having previously navigated such territory with films like The Last King of Scotland, State of Play, and the excellent documentary, Touching the Void. But The Mauritanian largely feels content to coast on the strong performances of Rahim and Foster without really actually drilling down into any interesting material. The script is often laboriously expository, awkwardly recapping Bush-era political shenanigans like a high school student trying to pad out a report with Wikipedia recitations, but such rhetoric rarely feels like more than extraneous details that distract from the central narrative. Whether Salahi is innocent is never really in question here, despite the film’s best effort to create an atmosphere of doubt — what is interesting, however, is the almost existential nightmare of life in Guantanamo Bay, which Macdonald most vividly conjures in the film’s nightmarish, often surreal final act. Try as he might to make the act of reading documents cinematic, it’s only in depicting Salahi’s inner life, the place he escapes to in order to survive his nightmare ordeal, that the film finds any sort of heart, and Rahim’s aching performance ably holds this personal exploration together. The film itself, on the other hand, remains a frustratingly mixed bag, attempting too much, accomplishing little that hasn’t been done before, and leaving its strongest elements ultimately unable to break free.