It is not exactly new information that the United States committed some horrendous acts in the name of national security at the Guantanamo Bay detention center. That does not make any of the stories to come out of there any less stomach-churning in its sheer brutality. One of the most prominent stories to arise from that disgraced facility is that of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, a man initially detained on flimsy grounds and tortured until he provided a false confession about his involvement in the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Salahi spent 14 years at the facility, some of these even after his name was cleared, with the only positive thing coming from this time being his 2015 memoir, Guantánamo Diary, which gave some personal insight into what actually happened behind those notorious walls (while still being heavily redacted). Filmmaker Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) uses this material to tell his story in narrative form in The Mauritanian, but the result is a middling effort that feels like the combination of the lesser parts of better films.
Indie darling Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) stars as Salahi, first seen two months after the attacks on 9/11 at a wedding back in Mauritania after recently returning from Germany. His celebration is cut short upon the arrival of some authorities who want to take him in for questioning. His mother fears she will never see him again, but Salahi assures her that he shall return soon. We jump forward several years and Salahi has been detained at Guantanamo without ever officially being charged for anything. His case reaches the ears of Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster, The Silence of the Lambs), a tough-as-nails defense attorney who is more interested in his right to habeas corpus rather than if he is guilty or innocent. He is entitled to appear before a judge and be informed of the reason for his arrest, and with Guantanamo being a legal black hole where prisoners go to rot she aims to bring some justice back to the process. She brings with her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley, Big Little Lies). Teri acts as the personable tether to Salahi as Nancy focuses on the FUBAR legal nightmare surrounding the case.
The film oscillates between wanting to be a tense legal thriller and a personal survival drama for Salahi, and neither portion works perfectly. The legal side is inarguably the weakest aspect despite the strong ensemble bringing these tough moral questions to life. Foster is one of the standouts of the film as she radiates steely determination with subtle moments of doubt and palpable frustration with the resistance she faces at every step of the way. Woodley is mostly wasted in a rather thankless role that suffers from being in the shadow of a legend such as Foster. Benedict Cumberbatch (The Courier) feels like an odd choice to play the southern-friend Louisiana military prosecutor Stuart Couch, a former pilot whose closest friend had been on one of the hijacked planes. His accent is interesting to say the least, but he does a fine job while taking a few unexpected turns towards doubt in the system. As a mirror to Woodley, Zachary Levi (Shazam!) shows up as an old buddy of Stuart’s who knows more about Guantanamo than he can say. He has a bit more meat to his character than Woodley, but not by much.
All of the pieces are set up for a hard-edged legal drama, but all of the information seems to be very matter-of-fact and lacking the impact you need on a development-by-development basis to keep audiences invested. The system is portrayed to be a nightmare of redactions and subterfuge, but the way narrative flows fails to elicit anything near the excitement of the criminally underrated The Report. With the shortcomings on this front, we come to rely on the personal drama of Salahi that is brought to life with impeccable humanism by Rahim. Through his memories you get to experience the unsparing torture, sexual humiliation, and constant accusations that leave him violently disoriented. These scenes can be a lot to take, but that is exactly how you should feel when confronted with these truths. Where the film fumbles a bit is in the lack of connection Salahi gets to have with nearly anyone and lack of context to his half-formed memories. In a film with a similar theme like Camp X-Ray, this prisoner gets to show his personality through his relationship with the guard. Salahi is rarely given the chance to cement the personal side of his life due to the script.
The Mauritanian is a film that is good, but never really achieves true greatness. It is successful in making you angry at the appropriate times and in questioning how far one should go in the pursuit of safety. The performers are pretty excellent across the board, especially Foster and Rahim, but the uninspired script keeps you at an emotional distance that never allows you to be riveted by what is transpiring. At a bit over two hours in length, the film goes on for a bit too long for the stakes that they establish, but a memorable conclusion complete with footage of the real-life people will leave you with a positive impression as your final feeling. The Mauritanian has a very specific message it wants to leave the audience with, and it does so at the expense of creating an undeniable film.
The Mauritanian comes to Blu-Ray in a stunning 1080p presentation in its 2:39.1 OAR that truly wows in high definition. It should also be mentioned that the flashbacks to Slahi’s early time in Gitmo are windowboxed to create a sense of claustrophobia. The clarity throughout is truly outstanding with subtle flourishes of the locations and clothing coming through crystal clear. Color saturation is great with the moody, warm color palette consistently represented throughout. Skin tones are natural with subtle details coming through easily. The environments mostly stick to building interiors with the occasional shots of the beach or vast, sandy expanses, the latter of which provides a lot of opportunity for precision detail. Black levels are pretty deep and do not fall victim to any noticeable digital noise or errors of the sort. Universal Pictures Home Entertainment has provided a transfer up to the level of excellence you would want from a new release.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track provides a pitch perfect audio presentation. There is pretty consistent environmental activity in these various environments, which gives ample opportunity to engage the speakers. This film is more of a dialogue-driven affair rather than an all-out action fest, but there are some moments with metal music or doors being slammed shut that pack the punch you want when they do pop up. Dialogue comes through clearly and never gets stepped on by any sound effects or the score. All of the sounds have an accurate sense of direction within the mix with noises such as footsteps moving around the speakers in compelling ways. The low end is occasionally put to the test, but even when it does not go full-tilt it gives subtle supplemental texture. This mix is pleasingly immersive and shows its strength throughout. It is quite impressive.
- Alternate Opening: A minute-long alternate version of the opening which shows Slahi during a lighthearted moment with his niece.
- Deleted Scenes: Five scenes totaling five minutes of unused material featuring a couple more scenes with Stu, the firm figuring out how not to overextend the partners on the case and more.
- Behind The Scenes of The Mauritanian: A quick three-minute piece in which the cast and crew discuss the story, the real human beings behind the story, the performances and more.
- A Look At Director Kevin Macdonald: A minute-and-a-half piece in which the cast and crew discuss the qualities that Macdonald brings to this film.
The Mauritanian is a flawed but overall intriguing look at one of the great many injustices to come out of Guantanamo Bay. The performances are the standout aspect of this narrative, and visually the film is beyond reproach. Kevin Macdonald unfortunately settles for being decent instead of creating something with staying power. Universal Pictures Home Entertainment has released a Blu-Ray sporting an A+ audio/visual presentation and a couple of special features. Despite some shortcomings, this one is still worth a watch overall. Recommended
The Mauritanian is currently available to purchase on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: Universal Pictures Home Entertainment has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.