*. “A true story.” Not based on or inspired by a true story, but a true story. Well, yes but.
*. A true story passed through the Hollywood filter. It’s based on the book Guantánamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who is played here by Tahar Rahim. Slahi was sent to the notorious prison and held there without charge. For 14 years an American lawyer named Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) worked to free him.
*. Unfortunately, such material doesn’t lend itself to gripping filmmaking. By the time The Mauritanian came out the War on Terror, fairly or not, probably seemed old news. And while director Kevin Macdonald, someone who started out with documentaries, manages to give the proceedings a bit of snap, the fact is that legal matters are mainly lots of drudgework and Slahi was caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare as much as one of torture. There are dramatic highlights, but you know the real story here was in the paperwork.
*. So it’s all quite serious and noble, right down to the end credits where we get to see all Slahi and Hollander celebrating the triumph of justice. But it’s also without bite. Everything feels so pounded into conventional humanitarian tropes as to scarcely register. The cast are cut-outs: the saintly Slahi, the crusading Nancy Hollander, Hollander’s conflicted assistant (Shailene Woodley) who has to go through the obligatory morality vs. the law gut check, and the Marine Prosecutor Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch) who won’t bend his principles to the injustice of the system.
*. Hats off to Cumberbatch, a noted mimic, for not just playing American in a reasonably convincing manner but even getting the slight Southern drawl down pretty well. Still, he didn’t sound quite right to me, and I’m not sure why they even thought of casting a British actor in the part. He was a producer so maybe that played into it.
*. Well meaning, and a necessary correction to Zero Dark Thirty, but much as it pains me to say it, that travesty of the War on Terror was a better movie. Which is something that really left me feeling depressed.