‘The Mauritanian’ Gives Guantánamo Bay Detainee Mohamedou Ould Salahi the Legal Thriller Treatment

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The Mauritanian (CREDIT: STX Films)

Starring: Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zachary Levi, Saamer Usmani

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Running Time: 129 Minutes

Rating: R, Mainly for a Scene of Intense Torture

Release Date: February 12, 2021

In the 2000s and early 2010s, films that grappled with 9/11 and its aftermath tended to be combat thrillers, reaching an apotheosis in terms of cultural impact with 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty. Now the focus has turned toward the War on Terror’s legal repercussions. 2019’s The Report took a deep dive into the massive amount of paperwork detailing the CIA’s use of post-9/11 torture, and now The Mauritanian comes along to narrow its attention on the particular case of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, who was detained at Guantánamo Bay withou charge for more than a decade. His story has been told before via the likes of 60 Minutes and Salahi’s own memoir, but even if you come in to this movie completely cold (as I more or less did), it’s immediately obvious that we are witnessing a miscarriage of justice.

There’s essentially zero doubt at any point in The Mauritanian about Salahi’s innocence. We’re not exactly told this outright, but we might as well be. With the guarded way that Tahar Rahim plays Salahi, there is a sense that he might be susceptible to being tricked into thinking that he has abetted terrorist activity. But these are merely survival tactics, as he mostly keeps his head down and says what is demanded of him when he absolutely has to so as to stay alive and sane enough to get by. The main source of the movie’s tension then is how much our patience is tested: just how long – in real time and movie time – will Salahi be detained? Because if you know anything about Guantánamo Bay, you know it’s probably going to take a while. Luckily, he has a couple of competent lawyers on his case in the form of Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), and with Foster giving off Hall of Fame-level tenacity vibes, we can feel confident that there will be a happy ending eventually.

Salahi’s story is undoubtedly compelling, but in terms of how it works as cinema, it’s not an automatic slam dunk. It mostly avoids indulging in the shoutiest excesses of miscarriage-of-justice legal procedurals, but it perhaps swings too far in the opposite direction, opting for a low-key approach that’s content to mostly just hum along. Then there are the torture scenes, which is something I would happily never see re-created on screen ever again. That’s not to say that it’s always absolutely wrong to portray torture; the ethics of doing so are certainly debatable. But aesthetically, it tends to be jarring and unnecessary, very much so in this case. Still, despite my misgivings, I’m glad that movies like The Mauritanian exist. The value they offer by getting these stories out to a wide audience generally outweigh my trepidations.

The Mauritanian is Recommended If You Like: The due process of law, Un-redacting the redactions

Grade: 3 out of 5 Forced Confessions

Movie Review: ‘Shazam!’ is a Blast of Kinetic and Frequently Disturbing Superhero Fun

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CREDIT: Warner Bros.

Starring: Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Mark Strong, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Faithe Herman, Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans

Director: David F. Sandberg

Running Time: 132 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Surprisingly Intense, Decently Scary Superhero Violence

Release Date: April 5, 2019

Shazam! harkens back to an era when superhero flicks, and the action-adventure generally, were legitimately scary. This is a movie in which a fair amount of people disintegrate, or get eaten by gargoyle-esque monsters, or get thrown out of windows hundreds of stories up. Seriously, this might set a record for most defenestrations in a PG-13 movie. I don’t mean to imply that the ostensibly family-friendly segment of the superhero genre has become otherwise toothless. The injuries and collateral damage are acknowledged in the likes of The Avengers (and overly fetishized in the likes of Man of Steel), but they are rarely this tangibly visceral. It’s been a while since the Penguin bit off someone’s nose in Batman Returns, but Shazam! has plenty of moments that are shocking on the same level, and that is mostly a good thing.

Those violent, sudden deaths hit as hard as they do because Shazam! is at first glance the height of boundless fun and bright colors. Its wish-fulfillment premise is that teenage boy Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is given the superpowers of an ancient wizard, which he accesses by shouting the title exclamation. This turns him into Zachary Levi in full-on beefcake form dressed in the most vibrant red and yellow with a lighting bolt on the front of his ensemble. Like most kids his age, Billy is nowhere near responsible enough to handle the weight of superherodom, which lends his adventures a “With great power comes great responsibility” vibe, but it’s a lot messier than the template set by Spider-Man. In his quest to exploit his powers for fame and fortune, Billy nearly kills a busful of people and panics so much in response that it is genuinely unclear if he can manage to fix his mistake and save them.

Lending a layer of tragedy to Shazam! is the fact that Billy and his main nemesis are both driven by an origin story of familial rejection. Billy was accidentally separated at a young age from his mother at a carnival, and he has spent the ensuing years running away from foster homes in an attempt to reunite with her. Meanwhile, Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) grew up an emotionally abused outcast in his wealthy family. He was once considered a candidate to receive the Shazam powers, and he has spent decades attempting to rediscover the wizardly realm, primarily so that he can exact some extremely disproportionate revenge. It’s not too hard to imagine that in a parallel universe, Billy could grow up to be as terrifying as Thaddeus, but luckily he has the strength of his newest foster family to help carry him along. Amidst all the very real danger, Shazam! would very much likely us to recognize the importance of a loving support system no matter what our level of superpowers.

Shazam! is Recommended If You Like: Spider-Man, Batman Returns, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Finger Lightning Bolts