Legal drama rings hollow in ‘The Mauritanian’

Image from The Mauritanian
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Grade: 3.0/5.0

“The Mauritanian” starts off on a tepid note, which is the warmest the film will be until it ends. Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim), the man who was falsely accused of being an al-Qaida recruiter for the Sept. 11 attacks, is back in Mauritania from Germany, celebrating a wedding. The joyful mood is instantly killed when Salahi is detained by American authorities, whisked across borders and imprisoned in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. The rest of the film is as dreary — and notably uninspiring — as you’d expect, detailing the abuse that Salahi faced at Guantanamo, his 14-year fight for freedom and the struggles of those that battled a corrupt justice system on his behalf.

While Salahi wastes away in Cuba, “The Mauritanian” introduces Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster), largely constructed by the film as a brashly unsentimental lawyer and seen through femininity that the script fails to assign depth to. The one-dimensional advocacy tries to compensate for a flimsy script, and Hollander hasn’t even met Salahi yet — the script cuts itself at the knees before the race even starts.

For the rest of the film, Foster’s character is stuck in the initial frame. Foster herself seems to yearn for depth, earnestly trying and occasionally succeeding to turn her part into one of substance, but the script offers her little to work with — that’s why this performance was so undeserving of the Golden Globe the actress received.

True to history, Hollander was Salahi’s dogged lawyer, but “The Mauritanian” is caught trying to turn a bureaucratic story into a biting legal drama. In a movie so sleepily militaristic, Foster as Hollander is mostly a take-no-prisoners upstart. As Hollander and Duncan meet Salahi for the first time in a nondescript, cagey room in Guantanamo, “The Mauritanian” hints at its path to redemption — successfully walking that path, however, is a different story. Shailene Woodley, the only one in the room who doesn’t overplay, rolls out warmth and reassurance as Foster’s associate Teri Duncan; Foster, in contrast, revisits an already familiar bravado.

If droning bureaucracy is the movie’s downfall, then Rahim as Salahi is its brightest spot. That first meeting sets up a movie that’s not about due process or jurisprudence, but about spirit. Rahim, playing off Woodley’s sincerity, recreates the buoyancy that floated Salahi through his darkest times, carrying the film through its weakest moments. By the end, “The Mauritanian” claws itself out of the pit it fell into, but far too late. Once it recognizes daylight, like the crashing waves seen through a tattered prison fence in a late scene, it rushes to save itself. The characters — Hollander, Duncan, and U.S. prosecutor Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), a government shill turned moral watchdog — are compelled to catch up with Salahi, whose disarming warmth snuck him past the guards and the script in the way that only kindness can.

“The Mauritanian” gives up on doing anything more than vindicating kindness. Salahi’s Achilles’ heel is shown to be his home country — him being immediately tainted by xenophobia when he goes to Germany on a scholarship — but any greater message remains a fantasy. In the film’s logic, the Middle East is still “that part” of the world; Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria are still “those countries.” The film won’t mount an effort to escape the trap that history set for it, remaining little more than a testament to kindness.

Rahim portrays a character the script did not entirely represent. Come the close, what sticks about the film’s Salahi is his irresistible effervescence. He even coopts the guards, subverting the rules and trading smiles. But the most effective aspect of the entire film is the clips of the real Salahi that play over the credits, offering contentment that would suit a retiree, not a former prisoner. As the credits roll to Bob Dylan, “The Mauritanian” fractures the bureaucratic tug of war at its heart: the one between the United States and all the people it wronged.

Dominic Marziali covers film. Contact him at [email protected].