“The Mauritanian” Review

The legal drama is a genre that has never died, and yet each new courtroom set movie is usually greeted with a critical reaction citing it as the kind of mid budget film for adults that isn’t really made anymore. This is part of the reason why Aaron Sorkin’s Trial of the Chicago 7, an entertaining but ultimately hollow throwback to the early 90’s heyday of the genre, is still positioned as the frontrunner in this awards season, despite very little enthusiasm for the film itself. If anything, the support for that film is ultimately about what the film represents – a perceived outlier in current film culture by being a mid budget, star driven film for an older audience, the kind of film major studios don’t rely upon anymore but are far from never getting made. Which is particularly strange, seeing as that enthusiasm would be better placed next to another ripped from the headlines legal thriller, which will likely get overlooked in favour of Sorkin’s more conventionally Hollywoodised take on the genre.

Photo © STX Entertainment 

Adapted from Mohamedou Ould Salahi’s best selling memoir Guantanamo Diary, about his time spent behind bars at Guantanamo Bay despite never being formally charged, The Mauritanian transforms this harrowing true story into a more conventional legal drama, all but demanding the audience are ignorant of the true story in order to slowly subvert the genre’s innate triumphalism. Whereas a film like Trial of the Chicago 7 is written in a way to reaffirm the political beliefs of the wider audience, The Mauritanian is designed to challenge them – it’s bolder than its conventions may at first appear on the surface.

Tahar Rahim stars as Mohamedou Ould Salahi, who we are initially introduced to shortly before his imprisonment on suspected terrorism charges, following rumours that he was one of the main recruiters for 9/11. Prosecuting teams uncover documents that appear to suggest he had a hand orchestrating several major incidents, with one even naming him the “Al Qaeda Forest Gump” in response. Flash forward to 2005, and defence attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) controversially agrees to defend Salahi, with the prosecution case being taken over by veteran Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch). What appears to be an open and shut case is soon revealed to be far more sinister, with the prosecution team growing suspicious when given nothing but redacted documents, the initial preconceptions on both sides challenged.

Photo © STX Entertainment 

Even twenty years after 9/11, director Kevin Macdonald’s film is liable to cause some controversy. The underlying theme is that of patriotism, and the conflicts this causes – the ability to do the right thing, even it clashes with what the public perceive as justice being served. I was frequently reminded of Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, which similarly explored a lawyer’s struggle to offer their client their constitutional right to a fair trial, because of widespread animosity from the public and even within the legal system. But whereas Spielberg’s film, his finest late period work, felt like a tribute to Frank Capra (another recent example of a filmmaker making that brand of mid budget, adult oriented drama that is alleged to not get made anymore), Macdonald’s film feels prescient despite its grounding in recent history.

Photo © STX Entertainment

The stand out moments are when we step away from both sides preparing their cases to focus on what happened to Mohamedou while detained. Anybody even vaguely familiar with what prisoners at Guantanamo Bay were subjected to won’t find any surprises here, but Macdonald manages to find new ways to make those sequences of psychological torture get under the audience’s skin. These flashbacks are captured in a boxier aspect ratio, creating a prolonged claustrophobia that feels relentless. It’s a striking aesthetic decision, and stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the film, where the workmanlike direction intrigues but never quite captivates in the same way.

The Mauritanian deserves credit for challenging its audience rather than just playing to their preconceptions in the way so many courtroom dramas do. But ultimately, it is still restricted by these conventions, with its best moments being the horrors that unfold separate to legal proceedings.


Rating: 3 out of 5.

Written by Alistair Ryder

View of the Arts is a British online publication that chiefly deals with films, music, arts and fashion, with an emphasis on the Asian entertainment industry. We are hoping our audience will grow with us as we begin to explore new platforms such as K-pop, and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, arts and fashion, worldwide.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.