'The Mauritanian' Is Unsatisfying Awards Season Fodder

Directed by Kevin Macdonald

Starring Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch

BY Paul DikaPublished Feb 26, 2021

Somehow, March 2021 is already upon us, and in true hellscape fashion, we're only halfway through an awards season that is already a month or so too long. Inevitably, this time of year brings a crop of films designed to garner attention and, more importantly, nominations by using a familiar approach. Harrowing David vs. Goliath narratives, historical political dramas that mirror our current climate, and protagonists determined to seek out the truth in the midst of a corrupt legal system are just some of the necessary ingredients. If you nail that trifecta, you're sitting pretty, and so is the case for The Mauritanian, the latest film from Kevin Macdonald.

Already nominated for two Golden Globes, Macdonald's most recent effort tells the true story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim), who was detained and imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay by the American government after he was mistakenly accused of being a key facilitator in the 9/11 attacks. While mapping out Salahi's path to Guantanamo, the film also follows criminal defence lawyer Nancy Hollinder (Jodie Foster) and her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), in addition to military prosecutor Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) who are tasked with proving his guilt or innocence.

As both the defence and the prosecution learn more about Salahi's truth (and the government's lies) throughout the film, Macdonald provides more insight to the details of the events firsthand. In just over two hours, the film covers incidents leading to Salahi's detainment, relationships he established with those at Guantanamo, inhumane interrogation tactics used against him, and the letters he spent years writing detailing his experiences. On top of that, Macdonald uses the film to explore the uphill legal battles that both Hollinder and Couch face.

Salahi's story is captivating for reasons that extend beyond his fight for freedom. It focuses on corruption, unethical treatment of political prisoners, and the use of "fear and terror to control," as Salahi explains in the film. But with his story, as is the case with other stories of this scale, there are so many details to try to capture in too small of a window. The film, which mainly focuses on his time spent imprisoned at Guantanamo, can only offer a glimpse of the events that led him there in the first place.

Take the relationship Salahi forms with one of the guards at Guantanamo (Steve Wood, whose relationship with Salahi was detailed in the 2020 short My Brother's Keeper) as an example. The relationship is presented with such indifference that the audience does not get the opportunity to better understand Salahi as a person through his friendship with the guard. According to a New Yorker article detailing their relationship, Wood indicated Salahi "liked to rile his guards into debating equality, race, and religion, and he wielded a sophisticated understanding of history and geopolitics to chip away at their beliefs." For a film focused on these same items, Macdonald would have further benefited from exploring a character who is not only a victim of these practices but also understands their problematic application.

As for positives, Rahim's portrayal of Salahi will certainly be the takeaway for many viewers. Rahim convincingly runs the gamut of emotions throughout the film, but, more importantly, captures Salahi's intelligence, perseverance and forgiving nature. The performances from the remainder of the cast are fine, but unfortunately don't match the gravitas of Rahim's effort.

When it's all said and done, The Mauritanian spends too much time touching on the key events over Salahi's 14-year imprisonment instead of spending more time examining the impressive individual. The result is a film that feels like it's checking off boxes instead of examining how, during his time in Guantanamo, Salahi came to understand the many themes the film tries to tackle. Still, don't be surprised to see it pick up a few more noms over the coming weeks.

The Mauritanian will be available on VOD starting March 2.
(Elevation Pictures)

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