Review: The Mauritanian

Kevin McDonald’s movie about Mahamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian who was swept up in the capture of suspects for the 911 terrorist attack and sent to the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, seems to assume that the viewer is prepared with a prescribed set of views regarding the overall story. The screenplay is mainly based on Slahi’s diary about his time in the prison, and thus has a limited purview regarding the war on terror that put him there. There’s not a lot of suspense inherent in such a story, unless, of course, the viewer hasn’t read a newspaper for the past 20 years, so McDonald’s various attempts to squeeze extra drama from a situation that is terrifying to begin with ends up having the opposite effect: the movie is strikingly unmotivated. 

The main problem seems to be the decision to divide the narrative among three POVs: Slahi’s (Tahir Rahim), his defense attorney, Nancy Hollander’s (Jodie Foster), and the US Marine Colonel Stu Couch’s (Benedict Cumberbatch, sporting a passable good ol’ boy accent), who is tasked by the government in Washington to secure the death penalty for Slahi. Essentially, Hollander and Couch, though they begin as nominal adversaries, end up in the same place once they realize that Slahi’s confession, in which he admits that he did, indeed, recruit the principals involved in the highjackings of the four airplanes that caused so much death and destruction on Sept. 11, 2001, was coerced through torture. They, of course, get to this destination via different routes, but the stories are so similar in tone and particulars that they feel redundant. Meanwhile, we see Slahi, both in so-called real time and flashbacks, experiencing the horrors explained in the super-classifed documents that both lawyers have to go to great lengths to attain, thus adding another superfluous layer to the development. Too much of the drama is based on people sitting in windowless rooms reading papers with furrowed brows. 

There’s obviously a gripping cautionary tale here that could have made a good movie, but not a lot of thought was put into the best way to tell it. (Maybe a TV series would have been better.) But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing. Rahim does an extraordinary job of bringing Slahi’s story and personality to vivid life, creating a distinctive human being whose past directly informs the person he became in prison. At the end, he’s given the requisite heart-stirring speech about how people living in repressive societies always look to the U.S. legal system with envy and desire, because they see it as an ideal worth striving for. The speech doesn’t sound trite and phony because Rahim has shown how Slahi’s own native intelligence and, yes, wit have kept him alive through an enormous amount of physical and mental abuse. He teaches himself English while at Guantanamo by mimicking the profanities of his captors! The point is, he’s so much better than the Americans he professes to admire. The movie should have been about him and him only.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

The Mauritanian home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 Eros International, PLC

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