If intentions ensured results, THE MAURITANIAN would be a great film. It wants to be a searing expose of Guantanamo Bay, and indeed, a lot of the true story about imprisoned Mauritanian Mohamedou Ould Salahi is compelling and well-acted. But too much of it is heavy-handed, starting with a script that spells everything out in big, bold letters. The result is a film that indicts the shabby treatment of prisoners at Gitmo for sure, but the majority of what’s here feels like a screed rather than captivating drama.
As is always the case, any movie’s problems begin with the script, and this one, by Michael Bronner, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani, needlessly complicates the telling from the get-go. If they’d based their screenplay wholly upon the memoir Guantanamo Diary by Salahi of his time in incarceration, the story would have been laser-focused. Instead, it wants to tell three equal stories, with Salahi’s point-of-view competing with two others: his defense attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and military prosecutor Stu Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch). Not only do the three stories fraction the narrative, but the three main characters barely interact at all.
If the script wasn’t an adaptation of Salahi’s biography, the film probably would have been better off taking Hollander’s POV as the main narrative. As she learns about Salahi’s case, so do we. The film is really a legal procedural, after all, so why not put the lawyer on the case front and center? Instead, Hollander’s story is relegated to a supporting one as the film spends oodles of time showing Salahi’s prison life, most of which happens outside of what Hollander discovers.
It also doesn’t help that Salahi is such an enigma. Yes, it’s awful watching him get tortured, and his affections for an iguana out in the prison yard render him endearing, but too much of his story is vague. Is he good or bad? Was he in cahoots with Osama Bin Laden or not? The film teases such questions endlessly, and French actor Tahar Rahim doesn’t help things by keeping his character at such an arms’ length.
Rahim plays things too close to the vest, but Foster and Cumberbatch are directed to go big. Foster is having a ball throwing her barbed quips around with relish, but Cumberbatch’s Southern good old boy is so hickishly thick, he should come with a side of Coleslaw. The script spends a lot of time placing them in inert situations too, sitting at tables and reading reams of files. They’re also taxed with dialogue that sounds more like exposition, constantly telling us what they found rather than showing them finding it. Supporting characters are forced to move the plot along even more in their lines, making most of them feel like serious versions of Basil Exposition, the Michael York character from the AUSTIN POWERS films.
If such underlined dialogue doesn’t stick in your craw, the script’s attempts at humor will. The screenwriters drop all sorts of pop culture references, everything from the E! network to Omar Sharif to Charlie Sheen in attempts to be funny. And even though good actors like Shailene Woodley and Zachary Levi are placed in big supporting roles, the script gives them too little to play. Woodley is especially given the short shrift, seeming to suggest given her star status, that much of her part ended up on the cutting room floor.
Director Kevin Macdonald did a wonderful job directing the breathtakingly real documentary TOUCHING THE VOID back in 2003, but here his approach feels mannered. He incorporates lots of tricks: various film stock, multiple frame-ratios, and self-conscious camera angles that seem more artsy-fartsy than artsy. And he loves symbolic cutaways, like shots of forkfuls of steak to underline sleazy lawyers chewing the fat at lunch, but most of such efforts feel forced.
Films like A FEW GOOD MEN (1992), ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012), THE REPORT (2018), and TV series like Showtime’s HOMELAND have already tread on such “homeland security” territory brilliantly but that doesn’t mean others cannot. Still, the revelations of waterboarding are not quite as shocking after all those other dramatizations of the practice. Perhaps if the film dug deeper into the psyche of Salahi instead, this film would feel fresher and be more enthralling. Instead, it plays as far too familiar and wears on you with its preachiness. THE MAURITANIAN wears its importance on its sleeve without ever truly earning it.