The Mauritanian

Tahar Rahim and Jodie Foster


The man at the centre of The Mauritanian, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, is a real person. Wikipedia spells his last name Salahi but its facts otherwise agree pretty closely with Kevin Macdonald’s film – picked up in Mauritania, extraordinary rendition to Guantanamo Bay, where he was held for years, suspected of being Al Qaeda’s chief recruiter.

Was he? Macdonald earned his stripes making documentaries and went big time with Touching the Void. Since then he’s had his biggest successes with films cleaving close to the factual (The Last King of Scotland, about Uganda tyrant Idi Amin), while the more overtly fictional The Eagle (Roman legions in Scotland) and Black Sea (submarine jeopardy) caused less overall excitement. The Mauritanian wants to have its cake and eat it – to be factually true yet dramatically intense – and does it by playing peekaboo with Slahi’s guilt or innocence.

Early on, Macdonald shows us Slahi deleting all the contacts on his phone. A later revelation – that he’d taken a call from Osama Bin Laden’s satellite phone – also seems to point the finger. This last in particular could easily have been cleared up in a flashback (there are plenty), but Macdonald leaves things vague. Suspicions are allowed to grow.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Slahi in Gitmo being questioned about his past activities. The prosecution got in to ensure he goes to death row is headed by buttoned-down establishemnt guy Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), one of whose friends was flying one of the planes that powered into the Twin Towers. Ranged against him is doughty unsmiling defender Nancy Hollander, an activist lawyer professional to her cuticles assisted by slightly gosh-wow rookie Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley).

Prosecutor Stuart Couch
Benedict Cumberbatch as Stuart Couch



Hollander’s “defence” of Slahi isn’t a defence of him at all but of a principle. It’s essentially a call to the US government to put up or shut up – charge Slahi or let him go – using the most basic legal principle of all, Habeas Corpus.

From here there’s a good slab of very familiar material – Hollander petitioning the authorities for its evidence, the authorities responding either with pages of material so redacted as to be useless, or attempting to swamp the defence with boxes of papers which can only be read by her and Duncan and only in this one secure room, an impossible task.

Crouch, meanwhile, is ploughing his own furrow. And while Hollander’s takes her away from abstract involvment in the case into a more personal interest, Crouch’s takes him in the opposite direction – from hot emotion to a much cooler appraisal of what’s going on at a legal level. The liberal Hollander’s story is the more obviously glorious and crusading, but Crouch’s story is also important and interesting and he is in many respects the hero of this tale, especially after he visits Gitmo to find out first hand what goes on there.

Crouch, Hollander, Duncan – these briskly written characters are tight, bright people with no time for messing around. Cumberbatch (voice slung slow), Foster and Woodley respond by playing them as written, crisply. Their interactions together are fascinating to watch. Macdonald has clearly picked up a thing or two from the walkie-talkie-ness of Aaron Sorkin’s dramas (from A Few Good Men to The Social Network).

Slahi, on the other hand, in the hands of Tahar Rahim, is expansive, warm, engaging, personable, a presence whose charm, and Rahim’s skills, are used to keep the glimmer of a suspicion alive. “The Forest Gump of Al Qaeda” as one interogator puts it? Still a possibility.

If you know Slahi’s story then some of Macdonald’s dramatic crescendoes just won’t work – I didn’t, so they did. More generally, The Mauritanian tells a story that’s no surprise – man arrested on no charge, held for years, confession extracted by water-boarding, sexual humiliation, sleep-deprivation, heavy metal, stress-positions and the full Rumsfeld-sanctioned bag of tricks.

Out of 749 detentions at Guantanamo Bay there have been only seven convictions. While putting a human face on one of those stories, the familiarity of what happens to Slahi, who remains opaque to the end, robs this politically important film of some of its dramatic power.





The Mauritanian – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


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© Steve Morrissey 2021






The Spectacular Now

Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller in The Spectacular Now

 

 

Feeling, looking, sounding like a very dark John Hughes film (Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller period), The Spectacular Now also has in Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley exactly the sort of actors Hughes might have cast – not the prettiest, but the most personable, the most “relatable” as we now say.

 

It’s Teller’s first starring role, after standing out in a series of supporting roles, notably adding a gloss to the comedy 21 & Over that the sub-standard joke writing certainly wasn’t delivering. And at first sight he’s playing a similar kind of character, the bright funny jock. Except this isn’t the successful jock the movies encourage us to pity – because of their muscular lack of sensitivity – but the jock in trouble, the life and soul of the party who simply won’t go home at the end of the night.

 

We meet Teller’s bright, funny, outgoing Sutter right after his blonde, go-getting and hot girlfriend (Brie Larson, blurring on and off a couple of times) has dumped him, for reasons that only gradually become apparent. And in one of cinema’s more unusual meet-cutes, we are introduced to the new girl in the his life, Aimee (Woodley), when she spots him one morning, unconscious drunk on someone’s lawn as she is delivering newspapers.

 

So here he is, a suburban high school legend whose catchphrase is “we are the party”, and here’s her, an academic, optimistic but fragile flower bowled over when his thanks for rousing him off the turf morphs into something that looks faintly, possibly, like a cool ardour.

 

Maybe it’s Sutter’s permanent tipsiness, we don’t know, but this strange meeting and the even stranger hooking up of these two over the following weeks works because we never quite know how serious he is about her. Is he just spinning the wheels until Her Hotness returns? Is Aimee going to be OK? More existentially, is Sutter?

 

After those jokey-jock supporting roles that he could easily have become too associated with (see Seann William Scott and Stifler), the eye-opener is Teller, who has the wryness and intelligence of a young Bill Murray. Woodley we already know from a bunch of TV and The Descendants, and she’s even better than him – watch out for the multi-layered look she gives Teller at the end of the film and start counting down the days till she wins an Oscar.

 

Director James Ponsoldt gives his actors plenty of freedom, and in scenes relying heavily on long, though not ostentatiously long, takes they repay the confidence with moments of interaction that look so right that you’d swear they were improvised. It’s emotional tightrope walking – at parties, at the pool, at school, out on the street, particularly in the bedroom where one of the most tender and believable love-making scenes plays out. Yes, I thought, that is how it is the first time.

 

Ponsoldt and co keep us hanging over the will they/won’t they precipice. And complementing this through-the-fingers romance is the sense that Sutter is out of control to an extent even he isn’t aware of, and that Aimee is a precious creature who needs to be protected from him but who, bright girl, might have her own not entirely selfless agenda.

 

I could do without Sutter’s backstory and the stuff including the search for his father, not because Kyle Chandler isn’t great as the jock’s good-old-boy drunken feckless dad but because we don’t need telling there’s something lurking in the woodshed. By this point Sutter has been berated by and fallen foul of very male authority figure in the film – teacher, boss, what have you – so we kind of know, we know.

 

So there’s an occasional overrun here, an emotional handbrake turn there, and now and again the plot gabbles on just a touch too conveniently, for the purposes of the film rather than its characters.

 

But as the band Phosphorescent’s Song for Zula echoes over the closing credits, its yearning, hopeful U2/Simple Minds vibe is a reminder that this too is how John Hughes used to do it, in the days when John Cusack would hold up a boombox to a sweetheart’s window.

I know that was Cameron Crowe directing Say Anything, but it’s the same achey-breaky thing.

 

 

 

The Spectacular Now – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

 

 

The Descendants

Shailene Woodley, George Clooney, Amara Miller and Nick Krause

A movie for every day of the year – a good one



21 August

Hawaii becomes 50th US state, 1959

Today marks the day when, in 1959, Hawaii became a part of the United States. It came about as a result of revolution which unseated the local Republican party, which had been in power in an almost unbroken run since the country had become a constitutional monarchy in 1887 (though that didn’t last long – it was shortly after annexed by the US in 1898 and became a Territory).

The Republicans had close ties to a number of companies known as the Big Five, originally sugar plantation owners and processors, whose oligarchic power allowed them to set high prices and make huge profits from the islanders.

The Big Five had imported labour to work the plantations, most of whom were denied citizenship and lived in camps. Their children, however, could become citizens, and became increasingly vocal as, at the same time, unionisation of the plantation workers started to lead to strikes in favour of higher wages and lower prices, political freedom and full rights.

In the 1954 elections this groundswell, and a Democrat party which had organised itself effectively, finally won a majority at the elections. The Democrats immediately set about changing the tax system, introduced a health insurance scheme, environmental protection and workers’ rights. President Eisenhower responded by appointing a Republican governor to veto many of the reforms, so the Democrats went all out for statehood. Which, after a 93% vote in favour on the islands, and against concerns that to admit Hawaii was to admit communists and the possibility of a dark-skinned senator, was granted in 1959.



The Descendants (2011, dir: Alexander Payne)

The Descendants is an unusual sort of comedy. A brain dead wife, a cuckolded husband – it’s not really a comedy at all. It’s built around George Clooney, reassuring us in voiceover as Matt King that he’s a good rich guy, rather than a bad rich guy – “you give your children enough to do something but not enough to do nothing” – having already laid out the mess of his life (adding estranged kids to the comatose, unfaithful wife). Clooney/King we’ve met, having been told that the estranged wife has had a boat accident and is now in hospital in a persistent vegetative state. His job is to pull the kids out of boarding school, bring them home, to say goodbye to their mother, and then…?

The film is part written and entirely directed by Alexander Payne and like his Sideways it’s a road comedy. Again like Sideways it’s gentle, but this time it’s ever so gentle; there’s no Thomas Haden Church to firecracker away. Instead there’s Clooney doing his dependable velvet thing, lots of lovely shots of picture-postcard Hawaii as Matt drives the kids from one encounter to the next, a soundtrack of either finger-picked guitar or a baritone singing Hawaiian songs.

They’re an odd contrast, this sun-kissed wave-lapping scenery and a brain-dead wife/mother plus familial bickering by Matt’s two daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) who resent Matt’s valiant lone parent act. The throughline is a quietly stated double Maguffin – should the wife’s life support be switched off, in accordance with her wishes? And should the King family sell a valuable piece of real estate on the island? Selling will make a whole heap of cash, but it will end a tradition – this was the plot that first bound the family’s and Hawaii’s destiny together.

On the way to Matt’s do-or-die moment Payne entertains us with characters. He’s good at this. The daughters, Shailene Woodley full of teenage sarcasm, Nick Krause as he dudeish Sid, the spaced out boyfriend of Alex (Woodley) who isn’t as dumb as he’s making out. Matthew Lillard turns up, the lizard grin of yore bulked out with middle age, as the guy who’s been seeing Matt’s wife, possibly, Matt learns, while he was still trying to make a go of the marriage. Robert Forster is the wife’s father, angry and confused. Beau Bridges a member of the wider King family pressuring Matt to sell, reminding us how good Bridges is at affable malevolence.

In the end it’s a journey, around a beautiful territory, in the company of some interesting people, who meet other interesting people on the way. It’s almost possible to just take it all in as a travelogue with a bit more family business than you usually get. Remove the sotto voce Maguffin – the land deal, the insensate woman – and that is pretty much what it is. But with it in, and Clooney’s calm, almost hypnotic voice, Payne makes it a drama about the slow, almost tectonic emergence of a new land mass – Matt’s humanity, dignity, nobility.



Why Watch?

  • Another smart Alexander Payne comedy
  • George Clooney’s anchoring performance
  • The emergence of Shailene Woodley
  • The cinematography of Phedon Papamichael



The Descendants – Watch it now at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014