The Austin Chronicle

The Mauritanian

Rated R, 129 min. Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Starring Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch, Shailene Woodley, Zachary Levi, Saamer Usmani.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Feb. 12, 2021

Was Mohamedou Ould Slahi one of the men responsible for the planning of the 9/11 attacks? In The Mauritanian, that's almost completely irrelevant. What is important is that Slahi spent 14 years in Jordanian prisons and then Guantanamo Bay under suspicion that he was recruited by the hijackers, that he was prosecuted and ultimately released because the case against him was the fruit of the poisoned tree. The evidence against him was unusable because it only existed because of torture.

"The military's founded on law and order," explains prosecutor Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Cumberbatch), setting himself up for the inevitable fall when it comes to winning the case. However, it's a long journey before his own principled stand means he cannot continue the case. Unfortunately, this well-intentioned but aimless film cannot find ways to fit the stories of four key characters in the case together. Just as Slahi was placed in solitary, so Rahim spends most of the film separate to his fellow cast members, and with the least legal exposition to weigh him down as he explores the mental strains placed on the prisoner. Unfortunately, Foster's one-note performance (all arch grumpiness) as his lead attorney, Nancy Hollander, is only given meaningful nuance because of his responses during their rare and brief exchanges, relying as it does on a grumpy archness. Woodley's woefully naive assistant Teri Duncan is supposed to be her moral sounding board, but instead becomes simply present when needed, absent when not. As for Cumberbatch, he's given either too much or too little to do, lifting Crouch from supporting character without enough engagement with the story to make him a major protagonist.

There's an earnestness to the script, but it lacks the deftness that a court procedural demands, especially one that questions the very nature of justice. When Hollander receive a stack of files, the experienced civil rights lawyer with security clearance seems astonished that they are heavily redacted. Any time an intelligence officer or lawyer brings up an acronym, someone else has to spell it out. In fact, the script by Peabody-nominated journalist Michael Bronner, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani is adapted from Slahi's Guantánamo Diary (published in 2015), and is arguably at its strongest when it concentrates on that narrative, on his subjective experience of being imprisoned and tortured. Those sequences give Macdonald the most to work with, and he clearly relishes the opportunity for experimentalism (one grueling torture session even evokes Michel Gondry).

Yet those scenes never truly mesh with the legal briefs, and point to a major flaw in the film: the balance between the subjective and the objective. What's on trial for much of the film is American justice, and its catastrophic failure of principles after 9/11, but then Slahi's culpability becomes the dominating issue. After avoiding discussing his guilt or innocence for much of the film, the defense team actually cites a polygraph test (presumably because their resident phrenologist was out for the day) as proof of their resolute commitment to truth. The Mauritanian wants to be a fusion of Papillon and A Few Good Men, but it cannot work out whether it wants to make a purely emotive argument, or engage in a brutal cross-examination of the legal system.

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