Last night, I finally watched The Mauritanian.
The Mauritanian is a film that was released earlier this year. The Golden Globes gave it some unexpected love. The Oscars ignored it. It won some awards in the UK. It’s based on the true story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, who was detained at Gitmo without charge for 15 years. The U.S. government claimed that Salahi was one of the men responsible for recruiting the 9-11 hijackers. Salahi claimed innocence and wrote and published his memoirs while he was still a prisoner. Salahi was regularly tortured and sexually abused while detained. His interrogators regularly threatened to bring his mother to Gitmo, where she would be gang-raped, unless Salahi told them what they wanted to hear.
It’s a horrifying story and an important one, especially nowadays when so many people have forgotten that everyone is meant to have rights under the law. Unfortunately, The Mauritanian doesn’t really do the story justice. Instead of simply focusing on Salahi (played, in a charismatic performance, by Tahar Rahim) and what he went through after being detained, the film divides its time between Salahi, his lawyers, and the man assigned to prosecute his case. As the representatives of the legal system, Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley, and Benedict Cumberbatch all give one-note performances. Foster somehow won a Golden Globe for her role but there’s not much to the performance or the character, beyond the fact that she’s pissed off and she’s played by a respected performer who came out of semi-retirement because she agreed with the film’s message. Shailene Woodley is not particularly believable as someone who could have passed a bar exam. Meanwhile, the film uses Benedict Cumberbatch’s likable screen presence to try to disguise the fact that it tells its story with a counter-productively heavy hand. The film wants us to think its nuanced, just because the normally heroic Cumberbatch is playing one of the government’s representatives.
The Mauritanian is a film that wants to shock and outrage us. It’s also a film that wants to move us and make the audience celebrate the activism of the attorneys played by Foster and Woodley. Unfortunately, director Kevin Macdonald takes a rather generic approach to telling this story. There’s no complexity. There’s no surprises. One need only look at a film like The Report to see how a film like this could have been effective. Instead, The Mauritanian often threatens to become as self-congratulatory as The Trial of the Chicago 7. At its weakest, it’s like an Aaron Sorkin film, without the snappy dialogue. There is a harrowingly effective sequence in which Salahi is psychologically tortured but Macdonald lessens the impact by continually cutting to Foster and Cumberbatch reading a report about the torture. It takes a moment that should have been about what Salahi was put through and instead makes it about how his attorney reacts to it. It’s as if Macdonald didn’t have faith in his audience and felt that we would need two stars to let us know that the torture we’re viewing with our own eyes was wrong.
Though The Mauritanian was only released a few month ago, it already feel like a relic from another era. One gets the feeling that a flawed but politically outspoken film like this would have gotten a lot more attention from the Academy if it had been released in 2006 or 2007 or even during the first two years of the Obama administration, back when people still believed that Obama was serious about closing Gitmo. Today, however, we take the excesses of the war on terror for granted. People are no longer shocked by them. As I watched The Mauritanian, I found myself thinking about the fact that, just two-and-a-half months ago, the U.S. blew up an innocent aide worker and his family, bragged about it, and then tried to cover it up. At one time, this would have been a national scandal. In 2021, however, it’s the sort of thing that gets shrugged off. One gets the feeling that a movie will never be made about that man or his family.