The most affecting sequence in Kevin Macdonald’s The Mauritanian occurs late ― too late, as it happens, to rescue this middling film from its humdrum telling of a story that’s anything but dull. But it’s not just late. It’s not even the final sequence before the end credits. It literally is the end credits. A true story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi’s 14-year detention without charge at Guantánamo Bay during the War on Terror based on the book partially compiled from his writings during his detainment, this film is a dramatization of his ordeal right up until the last minute, when it closes with a series of real-life video clippings of Salahi’s life since release. We see the remarkable character of this joyous, intelligent, gregarious man, exhibiting none of the profound psychological scars he must surely bear. It’s simple footage, uplifting in its content, highly effective in its use here and a great deal more compelling than the two hours of dramatic recreation preceding it.

That might have something to do with the intrinsic honesty of this documentary material ― an honesty that The Mauritanian otherwise lacks. Screenwriters Michael Bronner, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani undoubtedly had their hearts in the right place when they tackled the unenviable task of adapting Salahi’s story for the screen, turning an era-spanning tale into an evening-spanning film. But their distillation of that story, alongside those of competing legal teams attempting, respectively, to free Salahi and to maintain his imprisonment without charge, is reductive, condensing and thus (unnecessarily) simplifying its many complex details. This man isn’t just yet another tragic victim of the malicious, perverted nationalistic fervor that has gripped every federal administration in the U.S. since 9/11. He’s a man, a whole human being with a literal lifetime’s worth of incredible stories to tell. The Mauritanian, in its clunky dialogue, unimaginative style and trite moral and political equivocations, makes Salahi’s extraordinary story just ordinary.

None of this is lead actor Tahar Rahim’s fault. One senses that the difficulty of adequately capturing Salahi’s punishing isolation was too great for these filmmakers. It’s an enormous chunk of his tale largely excised in favor of the back-and-forths of a fairly standard legal procedural. Rahim has less time to spend inhabiting his character than he ought to, though the role presents him with plentiful opportunities to explore the fleeting highs and the crushing, endless lows of his captivity. It’s an extremely demanding part, possibly the single greatest test of Rahim’s dramatic abilities to date. He’s entirely up to the task, gracefully capturing Salahi’s warm charisma and affable sense of humor, then displaying a level of emotional vulnerability in scenes of interrogation and torture that’s tougher to witness than the depictions of humiliation and violence themselves.

There’s a whole other, unexplored film in Rahim’s scenes, one of far greater psychological depth than this. Tales of real-life American injustice abound with such frequency we’re rather inured to them, complacent toward the atrocities they attempt to spotlight. A probing, genuinely uncomfortable delve into the emotional realities beneath these injustices might be more moving, more persuasive than simply one more diligent exposé. Indeed, The Mauritanian isn’t even that diligent. It blithely elides masses of granular legal work into pat scenes mere minutes in duration, depicts momentous developments as snappy, pithy encounters, leaves all the checkpoints toward full narrative fulfilment square in the center of the plot’s direction of travel that it might pass through them smoothly, without any needless complications. That’d be acceptable in some run-of-the-mill action thriller, but this is a story of such magnitude that this approach can feel inappropriate.

It’s probable that Salahi’s story just isn’t quite right for dramatic adaptation, that perhaps it’s that most common of things (a nonfiction book detailing an incredible true story) that ought to have been left as that rarest of things (a non-fiction book detailing an incredible true story, just one that wasn’t optioned for TV or film). Often, the minutiae of legal procedures and processes underneath stories like these are intriguing and worthy of dramatic explication but here they’re not ― the moral angle trumps any legal concerns and the screenplay’s delineation of those processes is wildly, cripplingly simplistic. As good as she is, most of the scenes with Jodie Foster feel extraneous (at least, those with Foster but without Rahim); as bad as he is, all of the scenes with Benedict Cumberbatch definitely are extraneous. The least extraneous scenes in The Mauritanian? Alas, they’re the most neglected, those exposing this film for the half-baked Oscar bait it is. They’re the end credits.

Mohamedou Ould Salahi’s extraordinary story deserves an extraordinary telling but, Tahar Rahim’s performance aside, this dull prestige pic isn’t it.
40 %
A Minor Injustice
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