The Mauritanian: Can’t Handle the Truth, by David Bax
Kevin Macdonald’s The Mauritanian opens in cinemas this weekend. None of us should be going to movie theaters any time soon but, while watching a screener copy in the safety of my living room, I found myself wondering if that’s even the venue for which this film is intended. Its main aspect ratio is scope but flashbacks are in 1.33:1, not within the frame established by the dominant ratio but extending to the top and bottom of the television screen. Basically, it would be impossible for a theater to even attempt to mask for the movie. Maybe the DCP handles things differently but my point is that this all feels like a metaphor for The Mauritanian as a whole, a movie that’s confused about what exactly it is.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim) was arrested and, after being interrogated and, according to him, tortured in Jordan and Afghanistan, he was transferred to Guantanamo Bay in August of 2002. The Mauritanian picks up three years later when Albuquerque lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) agrees to represent him in his case against the United States government. You see, despite being held captive for years, he was never charged with a single thing.
Lawyers and the military (or, in the case of Benedict Cumberbatch’s government counsel, both) mingling in and around Guantanamo Bay brings A Few Good Men immediately to mind. And sadly, with Foster playing an uninspired retread of the cocky hotshot attorney smirking as soldiers bark at her, The Mauritanian doesn’t make much of an attempt to stand apart.
That phoned-in superficiality makes for a film most viewers will already have mapped out in their heads before the end of the first act, especially since some of the corny confrontation scenes feel like they were lifted from the trailers for previous movies of this sort. There’s little in the way of information or personality that comes from within the film. Everything’s on the surface; we know that the case is taking an emotional toll on Hollander’s co-counsel (Shailene Woodley) only because she says so.
The only exception is the way Macdonald handles torture. It’s not until late in the movie that we actually witness it happen but we see that the place Salahi is kept was designed for it with chain mounts in the walls. And we are given repeated reminders of how dehumanized he and his fellow prisoners are. There’s a bitter irony to posted signs warning the military men and women that they will be fined if they harm any of the indigenous iguanas. And the number and nature of warnings Hollander is given by guards before her first visit to her client must have made Foster feel like she was Agent Starling again, going to see Hannibal Lecter.
All of the above results in a film that could be described as competent but rarely inspired. But what ultimately undoes The Mauritanian is its inability to stick to its own apparent raison d’etre. Repeatedly, Hollander and the movie itself argue that Salahi’s guilt or innocence are not involved in the legal case but simply his human rights. Yet, in the end, Macdonald gives the man the hero treatment. The Mauritanian might have been more interesting had it lived in the mystery of its subject’s true nature. But, for the kind of movie Macdonald is making, ambiguity is not an ingredient in the formula.