The Mauritanian (2021)

Genres - Drama, Thriller  |   Sub-Genres - Courtroom Drama, Political Thriller  |   Release Date - Feb 12, 2021 (USA - Limited)  |   Run Time - 129 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - R
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Review by Jules Fox

The Mauritanian is a legal drama based on true events. A man assumed to have had a hand in the 9/11 attacks finds himself detained in maximum-security prison Guantanamo Bay for 14 years, despite his not yet being charged. A lawyer and her associate who are charged with advocating for the man struggle to defend him, while a military lawyer tries to prove that the man is guilty.

Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim) is attending a family wedding in Mauritania, West Africa, when he's told that there are some Americans who need to speak with him. However, he's taken into custody, shipped to a maximum-security island prison at Guantanamo Bay and imprisoned for four years without any formal charges.

After those four years, defense lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) find themselves in a courtroom trying to figure out why Salahi has been in prison with no charges, awaiting trial for something he claims he is completely innocent of. Hollander wants to force the U.S. government to charge her client with something or release him.

Opposing Hollander in court is Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), the prosecuting lawyer for the U.S. military. He's personally invested in the case, as he believes that Salahi is responsible for recruiting terrorists for the planes that hit the World Trade Center during the 9/11 attacks, which also killed one of his friends. He's committed to see that Salahi gets the death penalty to appease the anger of the United States citizens, although he begins to uncover some details which make him question his faith in his government.

Years continue to pass, however, without Salahi being formally charged for anything. Additionally, it's revealed that he was brutally tortured during his prison stay. The major question remains - did Mohamedou Ould Salahi have a hand recruiting people involved in the terrorist attacks on American soil or not? And whether or not he was guilty, how could he serve such a long prison sentence without due process of U.S. law?

Directed by academy award winner Kevin McDonald (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play) there are fine performances pulled from a talented cast, with Tahar Rahim standing out. There is much attention to detail paid to exuding the most out of the material, although the pacing is not even in his attempt to showcase the best qualities from everyone involved. Because of the limited time in a feature film, the effort ends up robbing the story of a depth that would have made it stronger.

Based on the New York Times bestselling memoir "Guantanamo Diary" by Mohamedou Ould Salahi, a focus on the author as the main character of The Mauritanian would have made sense. But the film jumps around among various characters and seeks to build a credible case for all their differing beliefs. Despite the talent of the cast, their on-screen characters are not particularly interesting or well-explored in the script.

The Mauritanian succeeds in painting an emotional picture of a major problem with the U.S. court system and imprisonment, especially concerning Guantanamo Bay. But it tries too hard to follow too many storylines without choosing a main character on which to focus, leaving it a little frayed at the edges. There are some particularly awful torture scenes that would be a better fit for a horror film, and the courtroom drama that would make a logical climax never comes to pass. But despite its shortcomings, the film is well directed and boasts fine performances, in addition to its solid technical prowess.