Some movies are torture. “Barb and Star go to Vista Del Mar” is like jumping off a comedy cliff and finding yourself forever cringing in the world where jokes never land. Even Kristen Wiig can’t save you.
Some movies are about torture. THE MAURITANIAN is a film that doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know, but now we have the personal specifics of a true story in a film which features a gripping central performance– but within a flat script which doesn’t do justice to the injustice on display.
The film is based on the best-seller “Guantánamo Diary” a memoir by Mohamedou Ould Salahi who was held by the U.S. government without being charged but nevertheless “detained” at the American Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Tahar Rahim in a deeply sympathetic and shaded performance plays Salahi who one night in 2002, was plucked from his home in the East African country of Mauritania and the arms of his mother in the middle of a family celebration. Brought in for questioning, Salahi would end up imprisoned for the next 14 years, shackled and accused of recruiting the 9/11 hijackers but never charged. How could this happen on an American naval base? A little history. According to the MILITARY TIMES jurisdiction there has been a legal conundrum created by the 1898 Guantanamo Bay lease agreement “stipulating that Cuba retains “ultimate sovereignty” over the territory while the U.S. has “complete jurisdiction.” The result was a “no man’s land” in which torturous conditions were suffered by muslim prisoners held there post 9/11 in the war on terror.
Enter Attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and her associate Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) who take on Salahi’s case against the U.S. government in the person of prosecuting military attorney Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch). The Lt. Colonel has additional skin in the game since a friend of his died on one of the planes on 9/11. Cumberbatch manages a southern accent that softens his ramrod bearing and enough self-righteous anger to make one think he’s not going to bend easily. Jodie foster attacks her role with tough, no nonsense, laser focus in a silvery wig and a slash of red lipstick. We seem all set up for a showdown between the two, but it never happens. The plotting takes us in another direction as sinister facts gradually come to light. Though we know where the tale is going, there’s only muted urgency and detail in getting us there. This all-star cast is defeated by some rather conventional filmmaking. The lawyers’ characters don’t feel fully fleshed out. Shailene Woodley’s character barely registers and seems to serve no purpose other than to occasionally push back on Hollander to facilitate exposition and, in one misguided scene, to cook up some additional conflict which quickly dissipates. There are a thicket of issues here political, ethical, legal, but none of them are as dramatically developed as they need to be in order to make this case as compelling as it should be– until Tahar Rahim takes the screen. Then the movie comes alive.
As Salahi, Rahim’s scenes in solitary, in the yard, in interrogation–present tense and horrifying flashback– rivet us to his pain, his vulnerability, and his humanity. We see ourselves in him, and thank god we do. His story needs telling, and the impact of the film’s final gruesome scenes are not to be denied. Even so the director–Oscar Winning documentarian and feature filmmaker Kevin MacDonald– might have told it more forcefully as a documentary; I found myself much more absorbed by the ending credits featuring shots of the real people and subsequent information about what happened to them. According to THE NEW YORK TIMES, 40 human beings remain “detained” at Gitmo. Now On Demand.
“LAND” marks the directorial debut of the splendid actress Robin Wright who also stars. I remember interviewing her for the first time on the occasion of her acting debut as the beautiful young star of an NBC TV soap opera called “Santa Barbara.” Even then she was instantly relaxed and credible on camera. Since then I’ve watched Wright blossom as a subtle and charismatic actress in notable roles over time: THE PRINCESS BRIDE, FORREST GUMP, and more recently as the Golden Globe-winning star of the Netflix series HOUSE OF CARDS. She has gradually expanded her range as an actress of uncommon nuance and depth, with a hallmark stillness at her core.
Wright brings all of this to her role in LAND as a solitary woman who removes herself to the wilderness in order to nurse mysterious wounds, alone. Wright is suited to this material, someone leaning on inner reserves to withstand life’s pain. Who knew the vagaries of the script would be her biggest problem. Let me just say that it’s hard to imagine that a character this capable would head for the wilds of Wyoming to live off the grid– with winter coming and without a clue. Even I know bears, etc. can be a problem, and I grew up in Conn. So her initial trials seem unnecessarily cooked up and could easily have been more credibly written to propel the circumstances. Nevertheless what unfolds is a surprising & tender tale of identity, redemption, guilt, and pain, that gently guides us through potent moments of grace. The film takes its time, nurtures its silence, and Wright and her co-star Demian Bechir perform in the same sweet, sad key, inhabiting the air between them with piercing delicacy. Now streaming.