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Tahar Rahim, left, and Jodie Foster in The Mauritanian.Graham Bartholomew/The Associated Press

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  • The Mauritanian
  • Directed by Kevin Macdonald
  • Written by Michael Bronner, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani
  • Starring Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim and Benedict Cumberbatch
  • Classification R; 129 minutes

There are many uncomfortable truths contained in the new film The Mauritanian. The countless lives disrupted and destroyed by America’s war on terror. The blind eye that we have collectively turned toward the uglier sides of that conflict. The fact that Guantanamo Bay still exists, for god’s sake. But rather than dig deep into these complicated realities, director Kevin Macdonald streamlines them into an easy-to-digest political thriller that feels far too comfortable.

Following the decade-plus legal odyssey of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, imprisoned without charge at Guantanamo after the 9/11 attacks, The Mauritanian squanders a precious asset – the insights of Salahi’s own 2015 memoir Guantanamo Diary – in favour of leaning on the familiar legalese tactics undertaken by his lawyers, led by the tough-as-nails pro-bono lawyer Nancy Hollander. There are lots of fast-food lunches over legal briefs, contentious back-and-forth confrontations with the military and desperate attorney-client confessionals in austere settings. Although there is a real, beating, bloody heart to Salahi’s journey, Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) chooses the easy, melodramatic way out at almost every turn.

Thank goodness, then, for the film’s performances. Taking on her first leading role in a decade, Jodie Foster imbues Hollander with a wonderfully tenacious sense of purpose and righteousness – we can practically see the gears grinding inside her head as she attempts to exfiltrate Salahi from his legal limbo. Benedict Cumberbatch is enjoyably prickly as the U.S. military prosecutor assigned with keeping Salahi in shackles, no matter what. And as the title character, Tahar Rahim (the French actor best known for his starring role in 2009′s searing prison drama A Prophet) turns Salahi’s personal journey through a very real hell into an intensely painful, spirit-shaking ordeal for audiences.

Tahar Rahim received a Golden Globe nomination for his performance.Graham Bartholomew/The Associated Press

So while Macdonald manages to come up with one of the most impressively brutal cut-to-black endings in recent memory, the rest of this feature cannot hope to match the power of his cast. And with that, the prosecution rests.

The Mauritanian opens in Saskatoon, Regina, Halifax and Kingston theatres Feb. 26; it will be available on-demand, including Apple TV/iTunes and the Google Play Store, starting March 2.