A Mighty Heart
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Dan Futterman, Archie Panjabi
“A Mighty Heart“ is the first unconditionally excellent film to come out this year. As we wade through a disappointing summer of lackluster sequels, that seems like faint praise, but don’t sell it short: This is a powerful, engrossing piece that leaves you gut-punched and a bit breathless when the lights come up.
Director Michael Winterbottom gives a very documentary style to the story of journalist Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping and brutal execution at the hands of terrorists in Pakistan. The 2002 tragedy was recounted by Pearl’s widow, Mariane, also a journalist, and it’s her book that is adapted here. Brad Pitt bought the rights and cast Angelina Jolie, and a better decision could not have been made. Jolie is excellent. I’ve seen mutterings in some quarters that Jolie’s “star power” eclipses the story, or “shifts the focus” from the compelling character of Mariane herself, or whatever. This notion is complete crap. Jolie’s fame does nothing here, because the movie makes no attempt to play off her Hollywood glamour. Filmgoers obsessed with Jolie’s tabloid-ravaged private life have only themselves to blame if they can’t stop thinking about whether she stole Jen from Brad and adopts too many kids and shouldn’t have kissed her brother and whether the U.N. is all fake and blah blah freakin’ blah. Jolie is marvelous as Mrs. Pearl, and shows once again that with a good director and a good script, she can really deliver.
The film covers the story from Mariane’s perspective. It covers the frantic investigation as Pakistani and American officials tried to locate the Wall Street Journal reporter before the death that befell him. Pearl was killed just over a week after his abduction, but it was a full month from his disappearance until the video of his murder was released. Which is why Jolie is so important here. There are times as the investigation winds on, in Winterbottom’s fast-moving, frenetic, close-up style, that the momentum fades a bit. We know how this is going to end. It puts a lot of weight onto Jolie to create the emotional anchor that’s going to keep us watching, because it’s not the solution to the mystery that must compel us, but our fear for her. That she’s surrounded by an excellent and very naturalistic cast doesn’t hurt, either.
Some of the time spent with earnest Pakistani investigators (the senior intelligence official is just terrific) might’ve been better shifted over to giving us more of an idea of the relationship between the Pearls. The film hinges on us sharing Mariane’s sense of loss, and while Winterbottom does a fine job of giving us just enough backstory to make it work, maybe a little more — without getting soggy and melodramatic — would’ve just increased the film’s already considerable payoff.
Winterbottom’s camera work, and the editing, create a vivid picture of Karachi, where the action takes place. The dramatization of the hunt for Danny is often intercut with scenes of daily life, the poor residents of the cluttered, dirty city. As absorbed as the cast, and the viewer, is in the pursuit of Danny, the rest of the city goes on with its life. After Danny’s death, an exploitative TV “reporter” tries to bait Mariane into crying, or showing hatred for Pakistanis. He wants a tabloid-pic reaction. Asked how she feels about Pakistanis after her husband was killed, Mariane comments that in the same period, ten other people were abducted and killed in the country — all Pakistani. It is amazing that in the face of her own deeply personal loss, Mariane can keep a more global perspective, can put overwhelming tragedy into a greater context. Winterbottom appears to be doing the same, showing us daily life grinding on even as Mariane’s is falling apart. You come out of the theater really admiring that woman.
There’s not much point in rattling on about the film. It’s terrific cinema that provokes thought and creates a more substantial reaction than the quick laughs or brief thrills of whatever else is clogging the multiplex.