The thing about the standard Hollywood biopic is that they generally stick to a tried and true formula: opening with title cards, neat and orderly chronological story with dates punctuated with cue cards, and closing title cards that explain what happened to the characters in the story once the script ends. The Mauritanian is no exception, and it’s unfortunately a double edged sword for the film: a cut at the end from joy and happiness to a somber title card about the next part of the story is one of the most brutal pieces of editing in a while, but the staleness of the formula creeps in anyway. Kevin MacDonald’s film struggles to find the middle ground between the immediate heaviness of the subject at hand and the demands of the standard biopic, and though it ultimately succeeds, it doesn’t necessarily do that with flying colors.
The Mauritanian is based on the memoir Guantanamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Salahi, who was imprisoned by the United States government in 2001 on suspicion of ties to al Qaeda. He told authorities that he trained with al Qaeda back in 1990 to support the muhjahideen’s attempts to topple the Soviet-backed government, but cut off all ties with them in spring 1992. The United States government – which had also backed the mujahideen – locked him up in Guantanamo Bay and tortured him for years. Despite winning a court case in 2010 that granted his freedom, the US Department of Justice appealed the ruling, and Salahi remained at the prison until he was finally released in October 2016.
The film does not shy away from the harsh realities of the situation, even going so far as to point out that former President Obama and current President Biden were behind the push to extend Salahi’s unjust imprisonment. When the film grapples with the dark underbelly of Guantanamo and the United States government, it’s electrifying. It’s made even stronger by Tahar Rahim’s fiery performance as Salahi, who mines the role for all it’s worth, finding dignity, rage, and sorrow in each moment. Unfortunately, when the film isn’t focused on him, it floats off into a bland procedural where sluggish pacing and weak writing undermine the supporting characters in this story. Jodie Foster does well enough as Salahi’s lawyer Nancy Hollander, finding the toughness of the character, but Shailene Woodley and Benedict Cumberbatch (saddled with a truly horrific Southern accent that sounds as genuine as the KFC colonel) are left flailing in the wind without much in the script for them to chew on.
It’s a film split between outside Guantanamo and inside Guantanamo, and needless to say, the parts inside the infamous prison are much stronger. Rahim’s performance and the cold and unfeeling atmosphere of the detention center – including an unforgettable montage of the various torture methods Salahi underwent through the approval of Donald Rumsfeld – make for a harrowing experience that highlights the corruption and stomach-churning actions of the United States military. The rest of the film feels too standard for what’s going on with the Guantanamo material, and it hamstrings the final cut of The Mauritanian. It’s ultimately another standard awards season biopic, and given the promising material behind it, that makes it disappointing to watch.
21, born and raised in Boston. Mamma Mia wine mom personality. Jerry Gogosian of the film world.