Kevin Macdonald’s The Mauritanian is yet another film that weds the doomy stylistics of 1970s-era conspiracy thrillers to a story about the C.I.A.’s post-9/11 torture program. While it’s based on Guantanamo Diary, the 2015 memoir written by Mohamedou Ould Slahi while he was detained at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba for almost 14 years with no formal charges against him and no trial, the film mostly hopscotches between American crusaders as they come closer to learning a secret that casual readers of the news will accept as a given. This structural gambit is meant to provoke suspense and outrage, but it renders Slahi’s story formulaic, shortchanging the extremity of his experience.
Macdonald and screenwriters Michael Bronner, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani utilize a form of misdirection that doesn’t quite gel. In the film’s early scenes, Slahi (Tahir Rahim) is captured in his home country of Mauritania and sent, via Jordan, to Guantanamo Bay in the wake of 9/11 for his early involvement with Al Qaeda back when it was a U.S. ally. A few years later, criminal defense attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) learns of Slahi’s predicament and takes his case, while the U.S. military pushes for Slahi to receive the death penalty, employing military attorney Stu Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) for the prosecution. We’re conditioned, then, to expect a traditional legal thriller in which established stars go head to head in route toward a qualified happy ending, as Slahi was finally granted freedom in 2016.
Instead, the filmmakers splinter the narrative between Hollander, Couch, and Slahi, with the latter’s strand splintered further between flashbacks and even flashbacks-within-flashbacks. The Mauritanian essentially consists of characters researching their way toward a hearing that’s delayed so long as to feel virtually beside the point. We’re denied conventional catharsis and forced to reckon with the tedium of reading towers of files, which are heavily redacted by a government that’s fashioned a new language of jargon, employed by dozens of departments, to obscure immoral practices. Yet even such a refutation of routine is in itself routine, as Scott Z. Burns employed similar tactics in the considerably more visceral The Report.
Slahi was ruthlessly tortured even by the standards of post-9/11 American government, and he eventually gave his tormenters a false confession when they threatened to kill and rape his mother. Reenactments of Slahi’s torture are mostly relegated to The Mauritanian’s final third, as Hollander and Couch close in on the secrets of the military’s “enhanced interrogation.” The torture scenes are meant to be shocking, except that Macdonald doesn’t find a new way to dramatize violence that’s been endlessly portrayed in the news and movies alike. Alarmingly, depictions of the masks, waterboarding, shackles, and blasts of heavy metal utilized by American officials to break down suspects are becoming an exploitive cliché—torture porn with a hint of geopolitical justification. The Mauritanian’s violence often feels especially gratuitous, as Rahim’s profound grace and stillness convey Slahi’s pain with a specificity and empathy that lurid action-torture pyrotechnics cannot begin to touch.
The Mauritanian is composed of two half-formed narratives, one in which idealists swim through impenetrable government files, and another concerning a man’s resolve to transcend his brutal imprisonment. Each narrative shortchanges the other, as Macdonald jumps around without establishing momentum, reducing his characters to markers in a thematic diagram. With the exception of Slahi in a few scenes, the characters here are never allowed to “just be.” (One of the film’s most surprising moments in theory, in which Couch discovers the breadth of the military’s brutality and switches allegiances, is unforgivably tossed off.)
The Mauritanian proceeds at a steady pace, hits its preachy marks, and is never unwatchable; even the perfunctory violence is staged earnestly, with not enough imagination to be truly offensive in its superfluity. But Macdonald evinces no true emotional or even intellectual curiosity about the material he’s working with, as he appears to be most concerned, as he was in State of Play, with fashioning impersonally prismatic images that tickle the eye in the tradition of classic American conspiracy thrillers like Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men. A more original filmmaker, like Scott Z. Burns, might’ve recognized the parallel between the on-screen crusaders and himself, as both are foragers attempting to reconstruct pseudo-factoids into a work that captures the spectrum of a life lived in unimaginable extremis.