The United States’ rendition, torture and indefinite confinement of suspected terrorists after 9/11 remain shameful in the nation’s history, but those cases have also proved themselves difficult to dramatize, even in a film with the pedigree of “The Mauritanian.”
Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”) directs Tahar Rahim (“A Prophet,” “The Past”), Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch in an adaptation of Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s acclaimed “Guantanamo Diary,” but the results are no more successful than previous films like “Rendition” and “Camp X-Ray” in turning this real-life horror into satisfying drama. (That sinking feeling that audiences might get at seeing the words “based on a true story” open a film is completely merited here.)
Whether it’s because these wounds are too recent and can’t be examined with historical perspective yet, or because the abuses heaped upon Guantanamo inmates are so unquestionably barbaric that there’s nothing that a narrative film can conclude about the process besides, “Yes, this was bad, and we shouldn’t do it anymore,” this is a subject that seems to lead talented filmmakers and performers astray.
There’s a moment in which “The Mauritanian” flirts with complicated subject matter, namely by suggesting that even if Mohamedou (played by Rahim) is guilty of being one of the main architects of 9/11, he’s still entitled to legal representation and due process. No sooner does the film suggest this than it immediately turns around and establishes Mohamedou’s innocence, which turns the movie into yet another tale of a crusading lawyer fighting for a blameless defendant.
In November 2001, Mohamedou — a Mauritanian subject who’s been working as an engineer in Germany — is taken in for questioning and then suddenly disappears. A fellow attorney asks Nancy Hollander (Foster) to use her security clearances to see if she can find him, and after tracking him down at Guantanamo, she and young lawyer Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) travel to Cuba to take him on as a pro bono client. After pursuing habeas corpus to establish just what the government is accusing him of having done in the first place, the two stay on to plead his case.
Meanwhile, USMC lawyer Stu Couch (Cumberbatch), who lost a close friend from flight school in one of the 9/11 planes, is tasked with running the government’s prosecution. As he encounters stonewall after stonewall in trying to figure out what Mohamedou confessed to, and when, and under what circumstances, he eventually puts aside thoughts of revenge after realizing the lengthy torture that Mohamedou has endured and why that torture makes his confession meaningless.
One of the film’s most searing moments, courtesy of editor Justine Wright (“Yardie”), cuts back and forth between Nancy and Stu as they finally get access to the documents they’ve spent most of the film chasing down, only to be utterly horrified by what they read. Stu eventually resigns from the case and goes public with what he’s learned, but the legal proceedings drag on for quite some time afterward, from one presidential administration to another.
Perhaps the biggest issue for “The Mauritanian” is that the screenplay by M.B Traven and Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani tries to accommodate too many protagonists; ostensibly, this is Mohamedou’s story, but since the film occludes his innocence for much of the running time, his backstory is often vague even as it begins to coalesce. It certainly helps that Rahim is such an empathetic actor who’s able to guide us through such painful territory.
Foster is never anything less than magnetic here, but she’s also fulfilling the wish for anyone who’s ever said, “I would watch Jodie Foster read the phone book.” The real-life lawyer she’s playing has a fascinating history of fighting for worthwhile causes — she’s currently Chelsea Manning’s counsel — but the screen character’s backstory and motivations are so wispy that Foster may as well be playing “Concerned Lawyer #1.” As for Cumberbatch, he completely captures the way military lifers stand and move (even when they’re relaxing at a barbecue), but his Southern accent lands with less success.
There have been, and will no doubt continue to be, great documentaries about this particular period of history and the failings of the American government in dealing with a national tragedy. But “The Mauritanian” suggests that filmmakers still haven’t quite landed on a way to tell this story as a story.
“The Mauritanian” opens in theaters February 12.