A defense attorney (Jodie Foster), her associate (Shailene Woodley) and a military prosecutor (Benedict Cumberbatch) uncover a far-reaching conspiracy while investigating the case of a suspected terrorist involved the 9/11 attacks (Tahar Rahim) imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for six years.
In the past few years, a new kind of legal thriller has sprung up. It's not much that it's a courtroom thriller like, say, 'And Justice For All' or Joel Schumacher's adaptation of 'A Time To Kill'. It's closer to something like a '70s conspiracy thriller, but without the wild swings of it all. The movies are so focused on truth that it sometimes forgets that it's meant to be if not entertaining, then provide a reason for watching it. Scott Z. Burns' clinical unearthing in 'The Report', for example, was cold and logical - but didn't have much in the way of engaging or enthralling moments. It was cerebral and vitally, it ignored any kind of splashy Oscar-bait moments. 'The Mauritanian' is trying to straddle a line between making an important document about a truly horrific miscarriage of justice, and at the same time, keep people in their seats watching it. The results don't always work, but you're still there at the end of it all.
Jodie Foster's screen presence over the years has matured from the searing vulnerability in the likes of 'The Accused' or 'Silence of the Lambs' into something much more closed-off and aloof, like in 'Inside Man' or this. Her character is this crusading lawyer who has no qualms about engaging the US military point-blank, but we see so little passion or fire behind any of it. Maybe that's the point, that her character has become so exhausted by the injustices of the carceral system that she can't bring herself to be excited. Shailene Woodley's character, by contrast, is all wide-eyed idealism but it feels kind of hollow in her eyes. Benedict Cumberbatch, meanwhile, warbles his way through uneven scripting and an accent not a thousand miles away from Foghorn Leghorn.
The only one making out - and indeed, the whole reason for why 'The Mauritanian' is so good - is Tahar Rahim. Much of the movie rests on his shoulders, being able to convincingly play an innocent man who is put through unbelievable horrors in the name of someone else, breaking down any kind of dignity that he has left, and still managing to keep some of it in his own way. Rahim's performance is electric, and that it's been largely overlooked this awards season is quite baffling. He may be covering familiar territory, as his career took off with 2009's prison thriller 'A Prophet', but it's still incredible nevertheless.
Kevin Macdonald's direction and the script by Sohrab Noshirvani, MB Traven, and Rory Haines is uneven, to say the least. There are moments - particularly towards the end with the titular character suffers a mental breakdown - that it really does reach into some fascinating places and really makes an impact. The frustrating part is that it's sandwiched between a lot of exposition, a lot of Oscar-friendly fluff scenes, and some very overbearing monologues that could have either been cut in half or removed outright. Kevin Macdonald has shifted between documentaries and Oscar-friendly movies, such as 'The Last King of Scotland' or 'State of Play'. The problem here is that either approach, if committed to, would have worked. Instead, the movie tries to do both and never quite lands on either.
Still, 'The Mauritanian' is an engaging if uneven legal drama-thriller that deserves attention for Tahar Rahim's engaging performance.
'The Mauritanian' is available on Amazon Prime Video from April 1st.