‘The Mauritanian’ is a boring depiction of a remarkable story

March 26, 2021

Stories of American depravity need to be told. “The Mauritanian” tells an important, still horrifyingly relevant, true story of a Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo) detainee. This film thrives in bringing sympathy and attention to the men wrongfully imprisoned in Gitmo but fails to enthrallingly present the court case the movie centers around.

Based on the book “Guantanamo Diary,” this movie recaps the first seven years of Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s 14-year wrongful imprisonment and torture at the Gitmo detention center and the legal battle to get him out. From the perspective of Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster), Mohamedou’s lawyer, “The Mauritanian” tracks the building of Mohamedou’s defense as well as the path of morality the prosecuting attorney (Benedict Cumberbatch) experiences.

The acting in this movie is one of its strongest features, but not so much as a result of its star-studded cast. French actor Tahar Rahim, who plays Mohamedou, brings such depth and variety to the part. Your entire perspective of whom Mohamedous is, how he got into this situation and what he is experiencing at the detention center, changes completely as the movie develops. Despite a relatively limited time on screen, Mohamedou comes off as both an extremely sympathetic, deeply persecuted innocent civilian and a cocky deceitful villain. Jodie Foster and Shailene Woodley both gave good performances but did not manage to distinguish themselves from the lengthy series of actors who have played similar strong determined lawyer types. Lastly, while Benedict Cumberbatch had moments of profundity and showed a lot of growth in his character, I was never able to get past his jarring attempt at a southern American accent.

What differentiates this movie from the memoir it is based on is that the memoir is Slahi’s account of his time imprisoned by the American government—the movie takes his story and weaves it into the legal arguments that determined if America had grounds to detain him at all. Mohamedous’s story is fascinating and heartbreaking and the film depicts it well. When his story plays out on screen, there is not a dull moment. Unfortunately, the majority of this film is not his story, it is Jodie Foster talking to people in different governmental buildings. I have no inherent beef with legal dramas, but to dilute an incredible story with an uninspired retelling of the government being secretive about their wrongdoings to the dismay of lawyers working against them feels unnecessary. A true story cannot really have cliches, but the way a movie presents a story can. 

The movie is split up between legal scenes—attorneys on either side of the case working and interviews between Mohamedou and his lawyers—and Mohamedou flashbacks. Nothing in this movie captivated me like Mohamedou’s flashbacks. They are shot in a different aspect ratio and provide a stark thematic contrast to the scenes of suit-clad Americans having conversations or reading documents. They have real emotions tied to them, be it hope, frustration, innocence or pure misery. The scenes depicting Mohamedou’s actual torture are horrific. It hurts to see pain depicted in a movie, but this is not just pain. We see the encapsulation of months of actual brutal torture at the hands of the American government on a man who has not even been charged with a crime. I came into this movie completely unfamiliar with the story behind it, so to watch that scene and then be yet again reminded that Guantanamo Bay, where these atrocious acts took place, is still open, still holding dozens of detainees whose day-to-day experiences are classified, is disturbing. Hot button issues like Gitmo are far too easily depersonalized, but this movie succeeded in showing me that there really are no positives to these detainment centers nor the tactics they use. The government’s post-9/11 knee-jerk legislation still plague this country and Guantanamo Bay seems like one of the easiest mistakes to rectify.

This two-hour film tells an important story, but not very well. The time dedicated to Mohamedou’s actual experience is powerful and harrowing, but the rest of the movie depicting the two sides of his case feels like every movie about a government conspiracy. The pacing is slow, the dialogue is stale and the cinematography is uninspired. The message of this movie prevailed despite these flaws. Were it not for the potency of Mohamedou’s story, I would have discarded this movie completely, but his story is one worth experiencing.

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