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Film Review: The Power of “The Mauritanian” Is Undercut by Narrative Chaos

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | February 12th, 2021

Film poster: “The Mauritanian”

The Mauritanian (Kevin Macdonald, 2021) 2 out of 4 stars.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi was arrested by local authorities in his native Mauritania in November, 2001, on suspicion of ties to al-Qaeda, and then turned over to American intelligence operatives who eventually expatriated him to Guantánamo Bay, where he would remain until October, 2016. No charges would ever be filed, though the claim was that he was one of the masterminds of the September 11 attacks and a top al-Qaeda recruiter. He told the story of his capture and torture in a book eventually released (with heavy redactions by the U.S. government) in 2015 as Guantánamo Diary. Today, he is back in Mauritania, free but not allowed to travel. It’s an extraordinary story, though sadly not the only one about the breakdown of American ideals throughout the 2000s. Fear makes the human race do all kinds of terrible things.

Slahi’s harrowing ordeal is now a movie directed by Kevin Macdonald (Black Sea), entitled simply The Mauritanian, and though some of it is told effectively, much of it is not. We are informed right at the outset that “this is a true story,” and while this adds real weight to the drama, it cannot make up for the missteps along the way. Despite some extremely powerful scenes of suffering and a moving performance from Tahar Rahim (The Eddy) as Slahi, the film gets lost in both unnecessary sidebars and a white-savior narrative that feels hopelessly dated in our age of racial reckoning. A miscast Benedict Cumberbatch (The Child in Time) and wasted Shailene Woodley (Endings, Beginnings) do not help. Jodie Foster (Hotel Artemis) has some fine moments as Nancy Hollander, Slahi’s eventual lawyer, but they often swirl, adrift, in the maelstrom of chaotic mise-en-scène.

Tahar Rahim in THE MAURITANIAN @STX Films

The crux of the matter, whether one believes that Slahi is guilty or innocent, is that there are principles enshrined in our laws, inherited from the English and then further developed, that include the writ of habeas corpus. This long-cherished decree is supposed to prevent anyone from being detained without evidence of a crime. While there is little doubt that authorities everywhere often push the limits of our system to keep people in prison long past their due date, or even without trial (witness the modern movement for bail reform), nowhere in recent memory has habeas corpus been more ignored than at Guantánamo.

It was because of this that Hollander, an Albuquerque, NM, attorney with a history defending human rights, took the case. And because Slahi had been tortured, making his confessions and all other evidence against him tainted, there could be no viable legal case against him, and Hollander won the day. No one wants criminals, or terrorists, to walk free, but we also want to respect the dignity of all human beings and ensure, as one character in this film says, that we prosecute “somebody; not just anybody.

Jodie Foster in THE MAURITANIAN @STX Films

Unfortunately, as gripping as the above might read, it’s often hard to parse the good from the mediocre in Macdonald’s movie. Too many incidental sequences involving characters we don’t care about come and go. We need more Rahim, is what it boils down to, and need even more of Slahi’s perspective than what we get. The ending credits showing the actual man are far more interesting than much of what we have seen. Perhaps a documentary would have done a better job. This is Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary, after all. Let the real story speak.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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