The detention center at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, where hundreds of men were (and in some cases still are) held for years at a time, mostly without having been formally charged with a crime or tried before a judge, represents what I would consider the single most flagrant human rights violation perpetrated by the United States government in the 21st Century. It is, I suppose, a sign of progress that it's now possible for a film as thuddingly mediocre as The Mauritanian to present this argument without any real stirring up of controversy or pushback: it's not merely that the film can declare that Gitmo is a deeply evil thing, but that the way the film presents this only really makes sense if it can safely assume that the viewer already agrees with it. And therein is the problem, really: the film is desperately safe and bloodless. Oh, it wants us to get good and angry, sure, but in a very comfortable, non-lingering way that makes us shake our heads and cluck our tongues as we walk out of the theater (or, as the case may be, stand up from our couch) and just feel very awful about all the bad things and then stop feeling awful in time to decide what restaurant to go to (or, as the case may be, call for carry-out).

Not that every film needs to be a blood-and-thunder screed against the injustices of the world that rakes its viewer over hot coals for two hours. But every movie does need to be interesting, and to be perfectly blunt, The Mauritanian isn't. This is the true story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Tahar Rahim), a Mauritanian-born man who was briefly involved with al Qaeda in the 1990s, was questioned and released regarding a couple of terrorist attacks in the subsequent decade, and was eventually arrested by the U.S. in 2002, where he was dropped in Gitmo to rot. During his time there, he wrote a book, eventually published in 2015 as Guantánamo Diary, the first first-person account of the unfathomable treatment of detainees at that place to be released into the world.

That's a promising start for a harrowing descent into the real-world inhumanities that too many people have been able to shrug off over the last two decades, and indeed the script for The Mauritanian, by M.B. Traven and Rory Haines & Sohrab Noshirvani, is officially an adaptation of Guantánamo Diary. Somehow, it ends up not actually being all that much about Mohamedou, and a whole lot about lawyers poring over the contents of cardboard boxes, as the bulk of the story hangs around the efforts of two very different people to break through the fortress of classified documents and stonewalling that the CIA and U.S. military built around each and every Guantanamo detainees, just to determine what the hell the charges against him even were: defense attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster), who has made her life's work punching back against the government's attempts to do its filthy business in secret (she has also represented Chelsea Manning, among others), and prosecuting attorney Lt. Col. Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), who would very happily see Mohamedou burn in hell, but quickly finds that he can't actually build a case without evidence, something the government is extremely reluctant to provide him with. And so these two ideological opponents, and Nancy's assistant Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), end up trying to solve the same problem from different sides, trying to get something as simple as formal charges drawn up so at the very least due process isn't being overtly violated.

What this means, in practice: meetings with lawyers. Almost nothing but meetings with lawyers, over the course of 129 minutes that float by with the delicate laziness of a warm breeze on a calm summer day. The Mauritanian gets so hung up on the procedural elements of its story that it loses track of the actual stakes of its plot: Mohamedou is barely a character, despite Rahim's best efforts to latch onto the hints the film offers about his inner life, on the edges of scenes. This doesn't even seem to be an accident: there's a point, fairly late in the film, where the two lawyers separately read his account of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" to which he's been subjected, kicking off a montage of the various things he's suffered, from sleep deprivation to sexual humiliation to brutal physical abuse. The film privileges this montage very much: it is very different stylistically from anything we've seen, with wide angle lenses, strong key lights with no fill, fast, even choppy editing, screeching noise on the soundtrack, first-person POV. It's the only completely subjective moment in a film that is devoted to dry third-person objectivity for most of its running time, and one even supposes that director Kevin Macdonald was making the rest of the film extra-dry just so that this sequence would stand out more.

Granting that - and granting as well that the torture montage is genuinely harrowing, stylistically brash, and certainly the most effective part of the movie - I still have my suspicions that this sequence belongs in this film, in this form. Structurally, putting it into the film makes it feel a bit gimmicky in a rather dubious way, as though the filmmakers wanted some kind of shocking "gotcha!" moment, but this reduces the real-life torture of a real-life human being to exploitation cinema in a most unsavory way; and to what end? In the year of our Lord 2021, nobody who would go to a movie like The Mauritanian would be taken by surprise by this narrative development, and I would imagine they pretty much all have an opinion on the subject. Presenting it this way, as a "did you know what they got up to at Gitmo?" moment of discovery, tends to cheapen the material into mere sensationalism.

Regardless of what we make of that one sequence, it's a very tiny fragment of the whole running time of The Mauritanian, and literally all of the rest of the film simply doesn't have any pulse at all. Foster is giving everything she's got to giving Nancy an angry, self-righteous spine of steel, but she's still devoid of any interiority beyond what the clunky, artlessly expository dialogue tells us - she's divorced, she's been a left-wing actvitist since Vietnam, she... actually, I think those are the only two biographical details we get. Still, she's the closest we get to a protagonist and the closest we get to a compelling screen presence; the entire cast of the film outside of Foster and Rahim is marked by the kind of atonal, barking line deliveries of drama club amateurs. Cumberbatch is a partial exception, in that he's terrible in a different way, trapped beneath the Foghorn Leghorn cadences of a delirious Southern accent.

Either way, it's a film that's bad on its humans, and worse on story, since there's really no drama here, just scene after scene of lawyering, full of all the breathless clichéd "excitement" of every other law movie in which the bulk of the story consists of reading files. Macdonald is the kind of filmmaker better at presenting us with lessons than compelling cinema (his 2006 The Last King of Scotland has lived in my memory as some of the Oscarbaitiest Oscarbait of the 2000s), and The Mauritanian finds him in extra-serious mode on top of it, so the whole thing just ends up being airless and joyless on top of having nothing resembling dramatic urgency. It's polished filmmaking, at least: the editing is  genuinely good, particularly in a shocking cut to black near the end, but the whole thing is full of tight cutting that helps propel the thing forward through the huge gaps in its chronology, even if the script won't follow suit. And Macdonald and cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler do good things using a narrow 1.33:1 aspect ratio for the "past" scenes of Mohamedou's dention, using the frame to create a visual prison within the literal one (this is not, ultimately, used as consistently as it could be - it ends up being exclusively a way to sort the film into two time frames, and everything else about it seems to be incidental - but when it works, it works. Still, this is all very painfully safe prestige filmmaking.