A harrowing true story, whose journalistic loyalty taxes character work
Guantanamo Bay is one of the most horrific human rights violations that is openly known about and yet continually in operation. The offsite detention facility run by the United States has been frequently criticized and abhorred for detaining terrorism suspects, especially after 9/11, and holding them without trial or even charges for years or indefinitely. There have been multiple films attempting to grasp the situation of Guantanamo Bay, but many have found it difficult to translate such an alien experience to viewers.
The Mauritanian (2021) is the true story of Mohamedou Slahi (Tahar Rahim), a Mauritanian who was detained in 2001 by his country’s police and handed over to American authorities. Mohamedou ends up in Guatanamo Bay and is interrogated throughout the years to try and get a confession connecting him to the 9/11 plane hijackings. Parallel to Mohamedou’s story we follow New Mexico-based humanitarian lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster), who is referred to Mohamedou’s situation in 2004 and decides to represent him and take his case to court.
The Mauritanian is directed be Kevin Macdonald, a Scot who has frequently moved between historical dramas (The Last King of Scotland (2006)), and documentaries (he won an Oscar for One Day in September (1999)). The stories that Macdonald chooses have a similar trend of being informative pieces with a journalistic goal. The Mauritanian continues this trend of informing viewers of this particular story and recent history. This can be incredibly conductive in educational terms but can sometimes prove lacking when crafting an emotional narrative.
Many directors of past Guantanamo films, have struggled to place viewers in prisoners’ positions, Road to Guantanamo (2006), mixed narrative and documentary to tell its story, timid of fully dramatizing the entire experience; Camp X-Ray (2014) meanwhile, slightly romanticized the location, showing how a guard became unlikely friends with one of the inmates. Macdonald is inventive with some of the tools he employs to bring the Guantanamo experience to the screen, but it doesn’t prove to be enough. There was an effective tooling of the screen ratio, where scenes where Mohamedou is suffering interrogations and feeling trapped have a square framing, whereas scenes featuring the lawyers employed a wider cinematic scope, giving a sense of freedom and space. Macdonald also plays around with the film-look, placing a grainy filter over the imprisonment scenes, and employing HD when outside. But these technical aspects can only get viewers so far in an empathic journey.
The main struggle that many directors have when telling the story of Guantanamo is in making audiences relate and understand the horrors that occur to the prisoners. For many, the situation and experiences that Guantanamo inmates go through are so horrendous that they become numb to it. This can happen if a director doesn’t ease viewers into a rhythm and link with a character. Thankfully, Macdonald has an incredible lead performance from Rahim, who centers the film and provides a depth and weight to his character that is largely absent from the script. The same can be said for the lawyer characters. Hollander is given practically no background or character work, yet Macdonald is blessed with the talents of Foster, who makes her character appear lived in and complex. Shailene Woodley, who plays a co-counsel to Hollander, and Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays the army prosecutor, round out the cast, but both are unable to make much with the material that they’re given. Most of the performers are simply relegated to being figurines that aid in telling the story. The story is, of course, central to any film and especially with The Mauritanian, but if one doesn’t put in the character work, you lose a big emotional characteristic that can give your message more punch.
The Mauritanian proves to be a harrowing informative piece on Mohamedou’s story, and the simple fact that it’s a true story can be enough to bring anyone to tears. However, Macdonald’s crafting of the narrative waylays character work, robbing the film of an emotional heft. The performers have to do an incredible amount of heavy lifting in order to give this film an added depth and extract empathy from viewers. The final result leaves the film in a middle ground of being intriguing and informative enough to “enjoy,” but whose final result may leave you cold and ultimately make the film less memorable.