Journeyman director Kevin Macdonald is a master at crafting dependably watchable dramas across a variety of genres. Like his compatriot David Mackenzie, he doesn’t make movies that are connected by shared themes or a common filmmaking style. You never quite know what you’re in for when you sit down to watch a Kevin Macdonald film, but chances are, you’ll emerge an admirer.
His latest is a lot like his first — a culturally specific Oscar-friendly drama, with undercurrents of a white saviour narrative. In The Mauritanian, Tahar Rahim stars as Mohamedou Ould Salahi, a North African man who was arrested in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and shipped off to Guantanamo Bay, for having suspected links to the al-Qaeda. He remained incarcerated at Gitmo for nearly a decade-and-a-half, without charges.
Watch The Mauritanian trailer here
Equally critical of the Bush regime’s ‘War on Terror’ tactics, and the Obama administration’s failure to make good on its promise to shut down the facility, The Mauritanian is a rare American movie that attempts to indict those responsible for post-9/11 belligerence — it’s a cinematic act of atonement.
Jodie Foster co-stars as Nancy Hollander, a defence attorney with murky motivations, who takes on Salahi’s case. Macdonald rounds off his cast with Benedict Cumberbatch (who plays the prosecutor with some skin in the game; his buddy was one of the pilots that died on 9/11), and Shailene Woodley (who plays the idealistic assistant to Foster’s character). A chonky Zachary Levi, meanwhile, appears in an extended cameo as some sort of jock fixer.
The film opens with Salahi’s ‘arrest’ — he didn’t know at the time, but he wasn’t being called in for routine questioning, but being kidnapped. “Save me some tagine,” he tells his mother in the film, as he drives off with the cops, reassuring her that there’s nothing to worry about. He’d never see her again.
The Mauritanian unfolds across two timelines — the ‘present’, when Nancy Hollander and her associate mount Salahi’s defence, and the past, which narrates the horrific manner in which his life was turned on its head. Cinematographer Alwin H Kuchler, whose work on Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs film was cited by the Russo brothers in their recent drama Cherry, revisits some similar visual language here. Scenes in Guantanamo mimic the look of 16mm film, and are framed in a claustrophobic aspect ratio — similar to how the Russos filmed the military boot camp segment in Cherry.
Like Cherry, The Mauritanian is based on a prison memoir, published while the writer was still incarcerated. Although it’s a vastly superior, but more conventional film.
Unlike, say, Zero Dark Thirty, which seemingly justified the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ against wartime detainees, The Mauritanian is more in line with films such as The Report, and even Green Zone — these are movies that attempted to declassify some of the most shady government practices of the time.
It’s aided by a terrific script, one that weaves in and out of the past; withholding information like a seasoned interrogator, and revealing new details only when it is absolutely necessary. It does, however, become a little heavy-handed towards the end, when everyone, including Foster’s clinical lawyer and Cumberbatch’s Bible-thumping prosecutor, has a crisis of conscience.
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Nancy Hollander in the film is, in many ways, like Rajkummar Rao’s character from Hansal Mehta’s Shahid — a lawyer who takes up the thankless job of defending ‘terrorists’. She becomes somewhat of a pariah in her community, but crucially, Macdonald doesn’t give her the Oskar Schindler treatment towards the end; there are no emotional breakdowns, no time for histrionics. And yet, despite her coolness, Foster somehow draws you in.
Tahar Rahim, however, is pure charm. He knows a thing or two about prison dramas — he delivered an unforgettable performance in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet — but Salahi is a different beast altogether. For a significant chunk of the film, you’re not even sure if he is innocent. But that’s the central argument that The Mauritanian presents — even if Salahi is guilty of the crimes he’s been accused of, does that justify torture? You decide.
Director – Kevin Macdonald
Cast – Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch, Shailene Woodley, Zachary Levi
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The author tweets @RohanNaahar