The Mauritanian ⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Marksman – R – 2 hr 9 min
NO SPOILERS Movie Review
Watched in theater Thursday February 11, 2021
AMC Kent Station 14 – Kent, Washington
4th new movie seen in theater in 2021

Following the events of 9/11, a man from Mauritania, Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahir Rahim) is forcefully taken from his home by authorities for questioning. The United States government is suspicious that he is guilty of working with Osama Bin Laden and helping to assemble the team of terrorists that flew the planes on that nightmarish day in American history in 2001.

Defense attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) takes on a habeas corpus case involving the man imprisoned at Gitmo for years without being charged for a crime. Nancy must follow her faith and experience in learning the truth and innocence or guiltiness of the imprisoned man. Legally, she squares off against a military prosecutor, Lt. Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberland) who is tasked with bringing charges against the man. Both will have their assigned legal challenges tested, as well as their personal and professional integrity. Is it enough to follow your job duties on faith or is it about learning what really happened with Salahi?

At first I thought this might turn into a legal thriller, sort of like something John Grisham might have penned. The first words on the screen are: this is a true story. Based on a book written by Salahi, who was detained and interrogated at Gitmo many years without having a formal charge brought against him. The movie literally goes in chronological order from when Hollander and Couch take Salahi’s case. Couch is ordered to take it and Hollander chooses it as a pro bono project. Her firm is against taking on anything involving 9/11 but she is insistent. Couch is equally consistent to prosecute a guilty man.

This is not a legal thriller, it’s clearly a drama. It’s a long, drawn out exercise of Salahi’s report of his innocence and treatment at Gitmo through a series of letters he writes Hollander. If you question how can letters being written and going through the government machinations can be on screen compelling, you’re dead on. In some parts, it’s painstakingly slow, and yet there are glimmers of an entertaining legal drama unfolding.

It’s not that Salahi’s story is boring, it’s the way it is told that is problematic. I enjoyed that the direction is to question Salahi’s declared innocence from opposing angles, but wondered if it might have been more impactful if it took more of the framework of a Perry Mason court case than, well, what is presented herein.

My favorite parts of the movie are when Jodie Foster’s character, Nancy Hollander, meet Benedict Cumberland’s. These few scenes are dramatically intense, impactful and show skilled craftsmen at work. My appreciation and admiration of legal thrillers like Grisham’s A Time To A Kill, Pelican Brief and The Firm are what I hoped for in this film the more I watched.

Sadly, the subject matter isn’t presented with much interest. Too long and dry. It could have been executed with more zeal. I realize it’s based on a true story and maybe this is what really happened, but there is only so much drama that can be wrung from letters and legal wrangling over redacted government documents.

(does get points for the cat-faced mask wearing military soldier)

When we finally get to what happened at Gitmo to Salahi we’re exhausted. Maybe that’s the substory to what happened to him. The many years he spent detained, fighting for both his freedom and to simply know the specific crime(s) he was being charged?

It’s outrageous how any human beings could be treated, whether prisoners or the innocents flying aboard the 9/11 planes. It’s all too easy being reminded of the 9/11 horrors and how surreal that fateful day was in American history. There were many cries for vengeance for those responsible. Salahi was caught in the combines of a situation that was more about revenge than truth — at least from the government and military point of view. As viewers we watch to learn whether or not Salahi — guilty or innocent — deserved this treatment?

In the opening minutes of the movie, when Salahi is taken into police custody, we see him erase all the contacts in his cell phone. This suspicious act taints his alleged innocence throughout the movie. We question why an innocent man would take this suspicious act? It’s an enduring question that lingers throughout the movie. One of the most clever parts of the film, actually.

This September, it will be 20 years since 9/11. In our just left the theater movie, we briefly remembered where Kara and I were on that day: Las Vegas. On a personal level, it’s an event that will never be forgotten by Americans who witnessed that terrible sequence of events. So many loss of innocent lives for … what?

Those that read this site, know that we enjoy visiting that city. It was one of the strangest times to be in Vegas. The airports were immediately shut down, sealing off people who were scared and wondering if more attacks were coming. Seeing those images of planes flying into the towers on the news didn’t seem like something that could be possible in America, and yet it was. How does that happen? Who was responsible?

The movie United 93 takes a more visceral look at the days events, where this film is far removed from that type of frenetic narrative. The towers burning and people jumping to avoid being burned alive is never depicted. And yet those are the images that ran through my mind while measuring Salahi’s innocence or guilt. It’s that type of movie, that you watch until the end to find out: was he innocent or guilty of being involved in 9/11? Do we want him more to be punished or brought to justice?

It’s a truly fascinating question. Art should question us and this movie succeeds on that level.

Also, can we talk about Jodie Foster’s gray hair? The real life Nancy Hollander has gray hair, but there is something disquieting about seeing an elderly Jodie Foster. Why was I distracted by her hair? I’m not criticizing the film for this, it’s just an odd aside that when watching her physical appearance portrayed like, I was taken out of the film somewhat. I kept seeing Clarice Starling and thinking: where is Hannibal the Cannibal? Also, kind of made me want to rewatch Silence of the Lambs, a dramatically superior film.

We go to films to be entertained. One of us was entertained here, the other very much was not.

The ending, which won’t be spoiled, is disturbing but not having known or read any of Salahi’s story, feels too predictable. In America, we just keep going through a crazy political world where nothing really surprises or feels fresh. We just had an election where the sitting President is charged with encouraging an insurrection at our nation’s capitol. We’re divided politically instead of coming together for common sense solutions. This film is sort of an exclamation mark on what continues to happen in America.

Sure, this true story changed the lives of those directly involved, but it doesn’t go deep enough into the water. It dips toes here and there as the ocean tide rolls in, but we never dive full in on the outrageous treatment of the detainees. Why are we treating any detained people this way?

These are human beings and whether they are guilty or innocent, they should be treated not as unscrupulous enemy combatants, but as any of us would want to be treated. If someone is guilty of a crime, their case needs to be brought to trial in a reasonably fast amount of time and the facts deliberated. The true outrage here is how long this process took. It’s not months, it’s too many years. The system broke down.

The system always seems to break down. I’m saddened as an American that our system which is supposed to be one of the best in the world continues to appear — at times, anyway — so hopelessly broken.

Unfortunately, this film commits too many time-based sins. It tells a story in a way that just isn’t as compelling as it could have been given the source material. Then again, I kept asking myself driving home after the movie how it could have been done better? I think viewers needed some more of the brutality of 9/11 inserted. The filmmakers chose to keep that out and rely on a long, slow narrative. Peel away the onion layers with suspect pacing. The juxtaposition of the 9/11 images and painful memories with Salahi’s protested innocence would have kept the conflict of the tale more grounded in that darker human desire for vengeance.

Kara didn’t care for this movie at all. She almost fell asleep. I was more emotionally invested and found it entertaining enough, but see her point of view. We’ve both seen (much) better movies where someone is accused and viewers must determine if s/he is guilty or innocent.

This film has the added punch of the accused being detained for a long period of time without any criminal charge being filed. That should make this film more entertaining, not less, but the way it’s all delivered is like drinking a diet soda over the one with all the fatty, bad for you stuff. Give me the latter, sorry.

A much better movie is Presumed Innocent or even better, Shawshank Redemption. Sure, The Mauritanian is a true story, but it could have been told in a more interesting way. The combined, average rating from Kara and I is two stars, but I’m going with 3 stars because I think the subject matter is stronger than how it was portrayed in the film. That might not be a fair way to rate this movie, but it’s the one being used here.

For others that choose to watch this film, I’m curious if you got everything out of the story that the source material warranted? You can use the comments below, again, keeping in mind this is intended to be a spoiler-free review. I think we’d all agree whether the detainee is innocent or guilty, he should always be treated with decency. If found guilty for crimes, punishment can only then be assigned.

Truly disappointing that the script couldn’t be more concise and focus instead on the skilled acting talent involved to show us, instead of force feeding exposition. Not recommended.

Rating (out of 5 stars): ⭐️⭐️⭐️ (Todd) ⭐️ (Kara)


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