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Non-Review Review: The Mauritanian

The Mauritanian is an odd film in a number of ways.

In some ways, The Mauritanian feels like it has arrived late to the party. Obviously, the War on Terror is still a major defining event of the twenty-first century. Guantánamo Bay is still open and housing forty inmates. It’s possible to trace the xenophobia that defines so much of contemporary American politics back to the War on Terror, most obviously by looking at the countries affected by President Donald Trump’s infamous “travel ban.” So the War on Terror is very much an ongoing concern that merits discussion and exploration.

Maur, Maur, Maur…

However, it is also a period of American history that has been very thoroughly explored in film and television, particularly in the context of prestige awards-season releases. The Hurt Locker won Best Picture a decade ago. Zero Dark Thirty was a major awards contender a few years after that. The War on Terror has been dissected through the lens of forensic introspection in movies like The Report and through broad satire in movies like Vice. As such, any movie hoping to explore the War on Terror exists in the shadow of larger culture.

This is perhaps the biggest issue with The Mauritanian. Director Kevin Macdonald’s earnest exploration of the incarceration and torture of Mohamedou Ould Salahi feels like a movie that should have been released during the early wave of this cinematic excavation. Even allowing for the fact that Salahi was only released five years ago, those five years feel like a very long time. The result of all this is that The Mauritanian feels like a movie displaced in time, feeling like a retread of the earliest films grappling with the topic, like Lions for Lambs.

Interrogating the War on Terror.

The Mauritanian sits uncomfortably between the extremes within the subgenre. A lot of the movie is structured as a legal procedural, focusing on veteran civil rights lawyer Nancy Hollander as she attempts to put Guantánamo Bay itself on trial through the microcosm of one particular inmate. Most of The Mauritanian unfolds as information-driven conversations in fairly generic rooms, as characters are surrounded by paperwork and boxes.

This makes certain stylistic digression particularly jarring. At various points, Macdonald adjusts the framing and aspect ratio as he jumps into Salahi’s account of his torture. During initial interrogations, the frame shrinks from widescreen to a 4:3 aspect ration, to emphasise the character’s claustrophobia. Macdonald uses an iris effect in flashbacks to Salahi’s childhood to evoke the fog of memory. Later, as the torture grows more intense, the editing grows more frantic and heightened, as if trying to place the audience in Salahi’s head.

Thinking inside the box.

It’s a commendable and logical approach. However, it often feels like Macdonald is trying to have his cake and eat it with the movie. The Mauritanian might be a stronger movie if it decided which register it wanted to work in, whether it wanted to be a deliberate and dissonant antiseptic interrogation of horrific abuse or whether it wanted to attempt to subjectively reproduce the experience as a way of confronting the audience with the horror of what was happening during these so-called “enhanced interrogation” scenes.

It’s an approach that seems to recall the clumsy early attempts to explore the reality of the War on Terror by contrasting the sterile environments in which these actions were rationalised with the grimy spaces in which they unfolded. Lions for Lambs is a great example of this trend, cutting an interview between a reporter and a Republican Senator against the lived experiences of troops in Afghanistan. It’s easy to understand the appeal of such an approach to storytellers, but it is also one that is very difficult to execute convincingly.

Lifting the cover.

In both Lions for Lambs and The Mauritanian, this contrast in styles pulls the movie off-balance. The more heightened sequences make the more staged sequences seem lifeless and inert, while the dialogue-driven scenes make the more visually aggressive sequences seem unnecessary and even condescending. It is not a fatal flaw, but it does prevent The Mauritanian from cohering in a way that it really needs to advance its arguments.

It’s tempting to suggest that The Mauritanian looks like a prestige television show tackling these same issues, largely relying on the performances of its cast to sell the drama rather than spectacle or scale. This is not a criticism. Indeed, in its best moments, the emphasis that The Mauritanian places on bureaucracy as a particularly banal camouflage for moral transgression recalls the meticulous and careful scrutiny that The Report applied to its subject matter.

Tabling the discussion for later.

Indeed, Macdonald has the luxury of dealing with a very talented cast in bringing the screenplay to life. Jodie Foster remains one of the greatest screen presences of her generation, and her relatively sparse body of late-career work makes these sorts of roles all the more impressive. Foster is very much a selling point for The Mauritanian, and Macdonald is smart to build the film around her, giving his lead actor space in which to work – bringing a drive and interior life to Hollander that isn’t always suggested by the script.

The audience is told that Hollander “been fighting the government since Vietnam”, and Foster sells that. It’s not a very showy performance, and this is a deliberate choice that helps the film as a whole. Foster plays Hollander as a character who has seen how the government responds to crises like this, and intrinsically understands what it is capable of. Oddly enough, The Mauritanian works best when it adopts Hollander’s almost detachment from the insanity of the situation. Much is made, for example, of her indifference to whether Salahi is innocent or guilty.

Fostering the right atmosphere.

The Mauritanian also benefits from a solid supporting cast. While Foster is asked to ground the movie’s moral stakes and a lot of the exposition, Tahar Rahim anchors the movie’s emotional core in the role of Salahi. This isn’t necessarily an easy task. The screenplay presents Salahi as a two-dimensional innocent, a victim of the government’s sinister machinations. While Rahim does good work, it’s a choice that somewhat undermines what appears to be Hollander’s central moral argument – that even if Salahi were guilty, he’d still deserve fair and equitable treatment.

While The Mauritanian is based on a true story, a lot of the storytelling feels clichéd and paint by numbers. The stories of Hollander and Salahi are cut against a third strand following prosecutor Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Couch who embarks upon his own journey to enlightenment. Again, like the tonally dissonance in the contrast between Hollander and Salahi’s threads, this third plot strand makes sense thematically. It is important to acknowledge that the people who prop up this system are not mustache-twirling villains.

The Rights Stuff.

Unfortunately, it suffers in execution. Part of this is simply because this particular story has been told better elsewhere, notably as the central thread of The Report. Part of it is down to the fact that while Benedict Cumberbatch is a great actor in his own right, he feels very uncomfortable with the deep American accent that he has to affect. Part of it is also the fact that the audience already knows everything that Couch will have to confront over the course of the movie; the end point of his arc is the starting point for both Hollander and Salahi.

Still, there are elements of The Mauritanian that work. The film arguably works best when it operates in a mode of wry disbelief rather than earnest sincerity. It’s interesting to wonder whether it’s Foster’s performance that pushes the movie closer to Hollander’s arch cynicism, or simply a reflection on how thoroughly these abuses have been catalogued and exposed over the past decades, but The Mauritanian works best when it focuses on Hollander’s exhausted understanding of the absurdity of a situation that leads to her “drinkin’ beers in a prison giftshop” in Cuba.

Drinking it all in.

The Mauritanian is an earnest and well-intentioned movie, but it struggles in its efforts to do too much – to encapsulate the entirety of an absurd situation within a two-hour runtime. The problem is compounded by the fact that The Mauritanian arrives in a world where everything that it attempts to do has been done more thoroughly and more insightfully, by films with a stronger sense of their own identity.

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