Review by Sean Boelman
Based on the shocking memoir Guantanamo Diary, Kevin Macdonald’s The Mauritanian is a generic but surprisingly riveting legal thriller. Well-executed and well-acted, Macdonald’s film overcomes the formula to become a legitimately interesting late-breaking contender in this awards season.
The movie tells the story of a man who is imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay and held without charges or a trial after being accused of being a recruiter for Al Qaeda. And while writers M.B. Traven, Rory Haines, and Sohrab Noshirvani settle for their film hitting the familiar beats, there are enough powerful moments to make it work.
That said, the movie does struggle to find its focus. The story cuts between the story of the protagonist, his defense lawyers, and the prosecutor who grows a conscience while trying his case. That third story, in particular, isn’t entirely necessary, especially since the same emotional arc is covered by a supporting character in the defense portion.
Those moments in the film which are most riveting feature the protagonist recounting the treatment he received from his American captors. Director Kevin Macdonald takes a surprisingly artistic approach to these sequences, showing the horror of the situation in a way that is both emotionally affecting and thought-provoking.
Macdonald’s style is a lot more ambitious than most “awards bait” fare. The movie switches between aspect ratios to differentiate the timelines, but widely goes with the smaller ratio during the prison sequences to simulate a feeling of enclosure. No matter how straightforward the script may be, it is made effective by unique execution.
Additionally, especially for a film set a decade ago, the politics of the script are still unexpectedly resonant. There is a lot to be said in this story about justice and standing up for what is right. Even though some of the methods that the movie uses to get to its message are the traditional and easy ones, the film still feels authentic in its overall approach.
The strongest aspect of the movie is arguably its performances. Tamir Rahim’s leading turn is pretty extraordinary, bringing a very humane quality to the character. Jodie Foster is as great as usual as his defense lawyer, commanding the screen in every scene she is in. In supporting roles, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zachary Levi, and Shailene Woodley give performances that are a bit distracting.
The Mauritanian succumbs to a few of the genre’s worst tendencies, but what allows it to stand out is director Kevin Macdonald’s touch. More often than not, the risks that the film takes pay off in droves.
The Mauritanian hits theaters on February 19.