Whilst the scripts intentions are in the right place, The Mauritanian doesn’t strike the chord that its powerful source material demands. The film follows Mohamedou Ould Slahi (played by Tahar Rahim) from the moment he is kidnapped post-9/11 to the moment he is released in 2016 without charge. Based on the book “Guantanamo Diary” by Slahi, with a screenplay penned by Michael Bronner, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani, The Mauritanian is a film whose script and subject feels familiar regardless of its strong central performance and director Kevin McDonald’s best efforts.
Rahim plays Slahi, an international student who knows French and English amongst other languages and trained with the US-funded Muhajideen, fighting Communism in Afghanistan during the 1990s. It is Slahi’s connection to the Muhajideen among other minor events that the US government hypothetically used to connect him to the 9/11 attacks. Rahim plays Slahi as a man with optimism, who believes his faith and innocence will lead to his release from the inescapable Guantanamo Bay. Rahim puts in another impressive performance, which adds to his recent strong work in The Eddy and The Serpent. Jodie Foster plays Nancy Hollander, Slahi’s lawyer who believes in the cliché that everyone, irrespective of what they have or have not done deserves the right to a defence. Foster who in recent years has been interested in directing rather than acting picked up a Golden Globe win for her performance and plays Hollander with the conviction and strength that you would come to expect from such a talented performer.
Throughout the film, McDonald uses close-ups and a handheld camera to evoke confusion and discomfort as Slahi is interrogated and tortured. Through such techniques, McDonald effectively visualises Slahi’s experiences for the viewer. It is also worth commending the choice to switch between aspect ratio to differentiate between past and present. Whilst a small touch, this decision makes the film easier to follow. Despite these positives however, there are issues. The script feels familiar at times and whilst there are numerous references to former US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, Steve Carell doesn’t get the opportunity to reprise his take from Vice. Furthermore, the capable supporting talent of Benedict Cumberbatch and especially Shailene Woodley feels wasted. The choice to have a seasoned performer like Foster in a supporting role pays off, however this is not the case for Cumberbatch or Woodley as the script does not deliver for them. There is no denying that having such capable performers in supporting roles elevates the material and watchability of The Mauritanian but having Cumberbatch for example playing a stock character, feels like a missed opportunity, regardless of the performance he produces.
All in all, The Mauritanian sheds light on the systematic torture and kidnapping by the US Government post-9/11. Whilst its talented ensemble might be a waste, it is worth watching for the awareness of its subject matter and Rahim’s strong central performance alone.