The first two decades of the twenty-first century have provided many world-changing moments that have been the basis for films both beautiful and tragic. The story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, held for 14 years in Guantanamo Bay without charge between 2002 and 2016, is a tale containing both tragedy and beauty that seems perfect for the big screen.
Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) directs Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) as Slahi, following his incarceration, and the efforts of defence attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) to get him free. Hollander wades through fabricated evidence and strong post-9/11 paranoia to uncover a conspiracy that reaches further than she ever imagined.
The issue with political dramas is that while the real stories have a huge impact on the way we live, the events aren’t always that theatrical. Scott Z. Burns’ 2019 drama The Report, which covered similar themes to this film, amounted to little more than very famous people looking through documents. Disappointingly, The Mauritanian struggles with the same issues, despite Slahi’s compelling memoir being the film’s source material.
At times it can feel too procedural, using familiar avenues to tell an unfamiliar story. We move through the chapters of this case without much tension, in the manner of a straight-forward documentary. It delivers the facts, but very few of the stakes, meaning you are engaged from beginning to end, but far from being at the edge of your seat.
What does elevate the film is the strong performances of the talented cast. Rahim is magnificent, mixing rage, dignity and strength as someone thrown into an impossible scenario. He’s perfectly met by Foster as the veteran hungry for justice, with Woodley her wide-eyed protegee. They face interesting opposition in Benedict Cumberbatch as Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch, the military prosecutor who goes to extraordinary lengths for his case, motivated by personal tragedy. It’s an example of how emotional the period was, and how a larger political stance can often blind us to the particulars of a situation.
These talents combine to lift The Mauritanian to a thoughtful place, but the overall feeling is that this is a film that could have been a lot better. One suspects that Hollywood will make another attempt at telling Slahi’s story, and we can only hope it will focus more on humanity than on process.
Written by James Luxford