James Jay Edwards

The Mauritanian Tells a Safe but Powerful Story

(The Mauritanian, STX Entertainment)

James Jay Edwards reviews The Mauritanian, a legal drama film based on the memoir Guantánamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Salahi. (STXfilms)


Shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Mohamedou Ould Salahi was arrested and shuffled from prison to prison, before ending up in the infamous Guantanamo Bay facility. He was kept there without ever being charged with a crime for over 14 years. While there, he wrote a book about his experiences called Guantanamo Diary. That book is now a movie called The Mauritanian.

The Mauritanian begins with Salahi (Tahar Rahim from Mary Magdalene) being taken in for questioning from his home in Mauritania. He doesn’t come back. His case is brought to the attention of a civil rights attorney named Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster from The Silence of the Lambs) who, along with her assistant Teri Duncan (Divergent’s Shailene Woodley), decides to sue the U.S. Government to at least try and find out why Salahi is being held as a political prisoner.


(The Mauritanian, theatrical release poster, STX Entertainment)

Meanwhile, a Marine attorney named Stu Couch (Doctor Strange himself, Benedict Cumberbatch) who has a personal connection to the 9/11 attacks is assigned the task of building a case against Salahi, the government claiming that the prisoner was the one who assembled the terrorist group that executed the planned attacks. Both Stu and Nancy uncover startling evidence in their search to either clear or condemn the accused.

Based on Salahi’s book, the screenplay for The Mauritanian was written by 60 Minutes journalist Michael Bronner (credited as M.B. Traven) along with Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani (both of whom wrote for the television series Informer). Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) presents the material as a combination of a military thriller and a courtroom drama.


(The Mauritanian, STX Entertainment)

Unfortunately, there aren’t many thrills and there’s not much drama. It’s never boring, but The Mauritanian is a pretty by-the-numbers affair. The audience can see where it’s going the whole time, and while the journey is both fascinating and angering at times, there aren’t many surprises to be had. It’s very lukewarm.

One of the things that The Mauritanian does well also contributes to its tepid temperature. The villain of the movie is supposed to be Stu Couch, the opposing council to Nancy Hollander. Except Couch is portrayed as likeable and rational, with enough skin in the game to want to see Salahi convicted, but level-headed enough to know that he must do it within the boundaries of the law. This lack of ruthlessness may add a touch of realism to the movie, but it takes away from the overall conflict.


(The Mauritanian, STX Entertainment)

Throughout The Mauritanian, the audience asks the same questions as the lawyers: “Did he do it?” Of course, Salahi plays nice with his attorneys, and even gets his mom to talk to them and plead his innocence, but is the suspected terrorist actually the victim of the story? Or is he a master manipulator? The Mauritanian lets the audience figure it out along the way, and the opinion seems to change throughout the movie. Could this charismatic prisoner with a talent for storytelling actually have been behind one of the worst terrorist attacks in the history of the world? Anyone who has read Salahi’s book knows the answer … or at least the one that is universally accepted.

The aspect of Guantanamo Diary that really caught people’s attention was Salahi’s descriptions of the torture that occurred daily at the facility. While the torture is limited to a few scenes and a montage, it is nonetheless shown in The Mauritanian. Waterboarding, sexual assault, sleep deprivation, mock executions—they’re all at least touched upon, and, as sparse as they are, the depictions are shocking. Nothing is too graphic, but the behavior of the guards and interrogators is disturbing.


(The Mauritanian, STX Entertainment)

While most of the movie is presented with little noticeable political bias, there is one moment in The Mauritanian that is both timeless and timely. When discussing why she’s defending a “terrorist,” Nancy says that “the Constitution doesn’t have an asterisk at the end that says, ‘terms and conditions apply.’” It speaks to the situation at hand, but also applies nicely to current events. And it’s something of which many Americans of today may need to be reminded.



Check out the podcast Eye On Horror for more with James Jay Edwards, and also features Jonathan Correia and Jacob Davison.


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