REVIEW: While flawed ‘The Mauritanian’ manages to hold a viewer’s interest

In 2019, “The Report showed audiences awful actions done by the United States government during the War on Terror.

In a similar fashion, “The Mauritanian” does the same thing, although this time with a more specific focus.

“The Mauritanian” refers to Mahamedou (Tahar Rahim), a man who was held at Guantanamo Bay for well over a decade without ever having an official charge brought against him by the United States. The intelligence services of the government claim he was a key recruiter for the terrorists that attacked on 9/11, but Mohamedou denied having anything to do with the plot.

Despite his denial, though, he’s arrested and taken into U.S. custody at the Cuba facility. There, he’s put in a legal situation where he will be prosecuted by military attorney Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), who lost a friend in the 9/11 attacks. Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster), meanwhile, decides to become Mohamedou’s legal defender after learning about the situation, with the help of her assistant Teri (Shilene Woodley).

This is certainly an above average film that sheds light on an awful situation someone had to go through at the hands of the U.S. government. His imprisonment and brutal treatment is captured well here. An audience can understand his plight and it’s upsetting to watch as he’s given very little legal defense.

While the film does fine work showcasing what happens inside the prison, though, there are some issues in how the movie takes place outside of Cuba. There are several moments, many of them following Stuart, that feel rather melodramatic, as he interacts with others about the case.

It’s understandable that the filmmakers wanted to capture how Stuart starts seeing problems in how Mohamedou was treated, yet the moments where his story moves forward feel too dramatized and inauthentic. This is less of a problem with Foster’s character, as Nancy is so in the zone with the case that one can’t help but find it compelling as she digs through case files, looking for the next break in Mohamedou’s defense.

Courtesy Topic Studios, BBC Films and STX Films.

Where the movie stumbles the most, though, is in its pacing. This is definitely a slow burn, which is fine. However, while the movie moves slow to explore the details of the case, several years pass by, creating somewhat of an imbalance. A lot of time passes in “The Mauritanian,” but the narrative doesn’t feel like it’s moving all to fast to cover that ground.

It’s also disappointing that the courtrooms scenes, which had a lot of build-up, didn’t really get much time themselves. Perhaps the film could have taken the approach of showing more of the courtroom, and then inserting look backs into Mohamedou’s story, similar to what “Trial of the Chicago 7” did.

Also not helping the film is a rather light script. The writing feels surface level here, with predictable dialogue in several moments. There’s an unfortunate lack of nuance and complexities at times, one example is where Nancy and her assistant have a disagreement that leads to Teri leaving the case for a time, which doesn’t feel fleshed out enough. Such a situation just felt out of place in this feature.

Despite these flaws, the movie comes through in a lot of ways thanks to its talented cast. Foster is fierce as Nancy, a woman committed to her ideals and belief in the constitution. The character’s resolve and backbone are well on display here thanks to Foster’s great work.

Rahim is also phenomenal as Mohamedou. Rahim finely portrays the hopelessness feeling Mohamedou is experiencing and convincingly showcases the skepticism his character has toward Nancy when she joins the case.

Cumberbatch has some of the weaker scenes in the film, but he is still a capable actor and is strong in the role itself.

“The Mauritanian” has its flaws, but it’s definitely helped by the acting and some strong moments that explore the problematic practices of the government. 3 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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