“The Mauritanian” opens in November 2001 with the arrest of Salahi (Rahim) but then jumps in 2005, when Nancy Hollander (Foster) agrees to force the government to indict the man with something. As most people know by now, Guantanamo Bay was a largely lawless place, where people could be held without charge for years, tortured to confess to something that may never have happened. Federal courts have ruled dozens of times that people are illegally detained there, and Salahi’s case is one of the most publicized and worrying. Due to a chance meeting and a phone call from Bin Laden’s phone, Salahi was accused of being the man who recruited people to fly planes in the World Trade Center. With almost no proof and no charges, they have held him for years and Hollander’s case begins with a simple habeas corpus case, in which the government should either indict Salahi or let him go. She recruits an associate named Teri (Shailene Woodley) to help her with the case and begins to uncover more and more dark truths about Guantanamo. On the other side, Lt. Col. Stuart Couch (Cumberbatch) seeks to champion the government’s cause but discovers the depth of his own country’s crimes.
The script by MB Traven, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani strives to make “The Mauritanian” more engaging by playing with its structure, going back and forth between ’05 and ’02, when Salahi was tortured, then Macdonald amplifies that even more by playing with proportions. Some of it is effective. Filming Salahi’s first interrogation scenes in 4: 3 amplifies the feeling that he is trapped, locked in, but that starts to become pointless – at one point, Macdonald overlays a current big screen scene over a flashback. The characters get lost in the excessive steering, which reaches its crescendo in a recreation of the torture Salahi endured during the film’s climax, a prolonged streak of horrific violence. It is worth noting that what happened to Salahi is not done on a soft pedal, but it sounds spectacular instead of true.
Worse yet, everyone is starting to feel like a device. Salahi is a replacement for all prisoners at Guantanamo; Couch becomes the disillusioned patriot; Hollander is such a non-character that one wonders why we spend so much time with her. Maybe any of these people could have been stronger as the center of the film, but it gets bland when presented in this context. Macdonald does a good job with his cast – Rahim has always been a great actor and Cumberbatch adds an unexpected depth that is not in the script, especially since he realizes exactly what his country has done – but they do. lose in the fabricated and dull scenario, despite their heavy weight to give it some nuance. The same goes for Foster, who is forced to shuffle the papers and read them seriously a few times.