Directed By Kevin Macdonald
Starring – Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim, Shailene Woodley
The Plot – The true story of Slahi’s (Rahim) fight for freedom after being detained and imprisoned without charge by the U.S. Government for years. Alone and afraid, Slahi finds allies in defense attorney Nancy Hollander (Foster) and her associate Teri Duncan (Woodley) who battle the U.S. government in a fight for justice that tests their commitment to the law and their client at every turn. Their controversial advocacy, along with evidence uncovered by a formidable military prosecutor, Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), uncovers shocking truths and ultimately proves that the human spirit cannot be locked up.
Rated R for violence including a sexual assault, and adult language
– Balancing act. Much of the characterization for the film is not only insightful in the very movements and direction’s that each respective side of the legal battle constructs in their case, but also entertainingly nourishing for how it values both of them equally in fleshing out the movie’s narrative. With Foster and Woodley being the two biggest names in the header, it’s easy to understand why we would spend a majority of our time from their vantage point, but what’s surprisingly beneficial is that Cumberbatch’s perspective is simultaneously illustrated, matching Foster on everything from cunning intelligence to evidential moral fiber in a way that disproves any pre-conceived notions that I may have had about the direction of his character. This constantly keeps the stakes of the case in the forefront of our mind with very few moments of levity or release along the way, and shapeshifts the idealism for each of these pivotal characters in ways that help prescribe many evolutions for the price of one.
– The guessing game. Easily Macdonald’s most brilliant piece of directing is in the slow reveal of exposition and backstory for Mohamedou, who stands at the forefront for one of the year’s most challenging character studies. Similar to the ways Nancy and Teri strip away piece after piece of speculation with regards to the client sitting in front of them, we too as an audience tiptoe across a tight rope of trepidation in narrowing down if this man is indeed the victim he pleads to be, or really is one of the masterminds responsible for the darkest day in American history. The answer, unsurprisingly, is more complex than initially perceived, and redefines the definition of victimization in ways that only a thought-provoking film of this magnitude can appropriately measure up. It offers an appreciation for the kind of moral ambiguity that lawyers are faced with representing every day, and illustrates an unconventional shade of grey with regards to people and fate that prove grouping isn’t always as easy as one side or the other.
– Layers of time. One of the things that often bothers me in cinema are these series of flashbacks within a flashback that often confuses and distorts the parallel path of storytelling. This is presented in Macdonald’s film, but with one unique caveat along the way with regards to the movie’s presentation, specifically its aspect ratio that helps distinguish our feet in the sands of time. When the movie is persisting through current day, our primary aspect ratio of 1.33:1 stretches imagery and backdrops as far as the eye can see, relaxing us with a consistency for conventionalism where everything feels clear and concise. When the movie shifts to flashbacks of Mohamedou’s incarceration at Guantanamo Bay, the ratio retracts to a 4:3 that boxes the aesthetic pulse of Macdonald’s artistic integrity. As I previously mentioned, that diversity in visuals helps determine when and where we’re at with any given moment, but beyond that it equally pertains to Mohamedou’s claustrophobic predicament, where his everyday isolation feels inescapable mentally and visually. It’s a brilliant measure of production that plays such an importance in what transpires, and keeps the abided attention on the integrity of the story at all times.
– Showstealers. What a remarkable series of performances from a lead cast that rivals any other this year in terms of prestige or craft. It begins with Foster who recently received a Golden Globe for this role, and it’s clear to understand why this is one of her very best performance in a career full of award-worthy work. As Nancy, Foster conveys the sense of discontent in a life outside of the courtroom that often leaves her burying herself in the very work that morally confines her, balanced by an emotionless exterior that competently articulates her decades in and around a courtroom. Equally mesmerizing is Cumberbatch who takes some detailed approaches in fleshing out Couch as someone unlike anyone he has ever attempted. Aside from the ample amount of heart and humanity that he disperses to the real life counterpart, it’s the consistency in a Southern drawl accent that is most evident in his spirited deliveries, allowing Benedict easy access to get lost in the journey of the character. Even above big names like Foster and Cumberbatch, however, Rahim as the movie’s titular character might just be the hands that control the movie’s pulse. Humbled by unfavorable conditions and a decision that now weighs heavily on his mind, Rahim’s vulnerability is second to no other distinguishable feature in his registry, and helps command a complexity for the character that shouldn’t ever be defined by one single instance.
– Authenticity. I point to one sequence in particular that not only instilled nightmare fuel to the sense of uneasiness in the conditions of the prison, but also served as the perfect precursor to the scene that changes anyone involved in this case. Without spoiling anything, I will say that this sequence is where the movie earns its production budget, complete with strobe-lighting and intentionally choppy editing, which exemplified a persistently jarring circumstance to the already claustrophobic toxicity of the prison that swallowed its captors whole. It’s easy to convey the psychological duress from the magnitude of shock imagery and heavy metal musical score that amplify the energy of the scene not relevant anywhere else in the film, but for my money it was the unflinching focus on Mohamedou’s facial registry during said acts that make the intensity all the more inescapable, eliciting an almost paranormal enveloping that transpires humanity with animalistic virtue in ways I truly wasn’t expecting.
– Little things. You get a sense of appreciation for MacDonald and his production during the film’s post-movie credits where we get a few minutes of footage of the real life Mohamadou, illustrating the kind of person he was. Not only are nuances like the speech patterns and visual ticks of the character solidified in MacDonald’s direction of Rahim, but the very casting of Rahim is one that bears an uncanny resemblance to his real life counterpart, so much so that I even wondered if they shot additional footage with Rahim to compliment the movie’s authenticity. Once in a while you get ideal casting that blurs the lines of fiction and reality accordingly, and it’s those touches of personality and perfection that Macdonald thrives in, constructing a cinematic experience that is resounding for its unflinching nature, but also exceptional for the kind of persistent focus that has earned MacDonald praise as one of the best biopic directors of our time.
– Brutal and unsettling. Part of what has always made me a fan of Macdonald’s filmography is his ability to get lost in the atmosphere and emotions of a time frame, and flesh them out in a way that is transformative for the picture he accommodates. In this regard, a post 9/11 setting wields no shortage of cultural injustices in search of a scapegoat to tie it all together. It’s for that reasoning alone why Guantanamo Bay is able to thrive in an often barbaric and avenging society, complete with a pursuer with so very little answers in tying anyone or anything together. Kevin captures that paranoia, anger, and uncertainty with a commentary that that signifies a nation still reeling from the effects of its first real dose of cultural terrorism, and in turn uses it to play into the paranoia about Mohamadou, which is most evident in the way that quite everyone views him.
– Dissipating tension. This is in the movie’s big reveal, which I feel happened far too early during the movie’s pivotal third act, which in turn created some problems for itself. For one, the anticipation of this big courtroom drama throughout the entirety of the film really oversold the level of importance that the case itself felt during what should’ve been the movie’s climax, and only materializes with about twenty minutes left in the film, at a point when it took far too long to reach to feel satisfyingly effective. The courtroom itself is almost an afterthought to everything that transpired previously, leaving so little room of importance left on the bone for the moments of social commentary that echo the loudest. For a courtroom drama nut like me, I felt that the film’s glaring weakness was during the closing scenes, when inspiration should’ve found its way into a resolution that stretched a bit too thin for my taste.
– Plodding pacing. A film like “The Mauritanian” will only appeal to patient audience who don’t require an explosion or high intense action sequence to sell its charms. In this regard, we get some solid lines of dialogue to help shape and strip away anticipation with a series of swerves and left turns, but the collection of unnecessary, prolonged scenes and sequences start to stack up early on in the second act, and lead to an overall issue in pacing that consistently leaves more to be desired. Clocking in at just over two hours long, the movie takes advantage of that allowance with a couple of character insights and perspectives that I honestly could’ve done without, ultimately feeling like they delayed the inevitable for what was promised and only delivered upon many scenes later down the line. For my money, there’s plenty of stakes scattered sporadically throughout the film, but no urgency with regards to the frailty of life with how to approach them. It leads to an abundance of speed bumps during the movie’s stalling second half that dramatically weighed down my experience with the story, and emphatically made me wish the production would go back into the studio to make a satisfying edit that is no longer than 105 minutes from bell to bell.
My Grade: 8/10 or B+