A Mighty Heart
2007Director: Michael Winterbottom
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Dan Futterman, Irfan Khan
he film adaptation of Mariane Pearl’s A Mighty Heart has opened amid a flood of names. The most aggressively reported is Angelina Jolie, alternatively the Best Woman in the World or a censor, depending on which hyperbolic media you indulge. Another, usually accompanied by cold shorthand like “slain” or “beheaded,” is Daniel Pearl, whose kidnapping in Karachi, Pakistan in the early months after September 11 is the film’s ostensible subject. There are other players who have sifted in and out of the media, more often than not the focus of some derision or skepticism, early backlash to a film whose title alone implies a lofty parable with booming intentions and no soul.
The name mentioned with frustrating rarity is Michael Winterbottom, the mostly unheralded English director of movies like Welcome to Sarajevo and 24 Hour Party People. He is the man at the helm of A Mighty Heart, and his mark is everywhere, be it the film’s air of digital reality or the immediacy of its desire to tear open its subject at the seam. He can work with conventional narrative, but this movie, like his most relevant past work, 2006’s The Road to Guantanamo, is driven by conflicting desires to make a statement—an intimate one, no less—and to employ a grainy handheld camera that cuts into local and international politics and the underlying forces that define them.
It is also, paradoxically, insistent on a narrow focus for its story, even amid intercut shots of detainees paraded into that notorious bay prison and the early American strikes on Afghanistan. This is a movie about the kidnapping of Daniel Pearl and the investigation that followed it, up until the moment that the video revealing his fate surfaced weeks later. Winterbottom stays faithful to this focus, although the chaos pervading the Middle East is all too often an invitation for futile attempts to create a big picture where none exists. At the same time he recognizes the intricacies that make this story so vital to recollect.
The movie is a blueprint of how a terrorist organization might operate—there is a dry-erase board jammed with arrows as the leads pour in—and also a tale of husband-and-wife journalists deeply in love, of horror and of hope. It tells the complex story of her husband’s kidnapping Mariane Pearl laid out in her book with the same immediacy it does the intimate tale of love and loss that frames it, and that is the film’s triumph.
The movie opens with background. The day after September 11, Danny (Dan Futterman) and Mariane Pearl (Jolie) flew to Pakistan. The film opens months later, in late January, when Danny had just one interview left before he and Mariane, by then five months pregnant, planned to leave. He does not come home that night and is unreachable. We see his path as it unfolds both here and later in flashbacks, and before long police agencies both Eastern and Western launch a feverish campaign to bring him home.
True to Winterbottom’s new fascination with ostensible realism, images and audio between scenes bleed into each other, and the overlap keeps the investigation moving along at a brisk, sometimes frantic and sometimes numbing, pace. Each lead seems followed by a dead end, or lead to another and another, the impossibly dense streets of Karachi a visual indication of how daunting the search really is. The story routinely cuts back to Mariane, trapped at a busy compound that overtakes her home, seemingly as much a part of the investigation as the Pakistani counter-terrorism officer (an irrepressible Irfan Khan) who spearheads the local efforts.
Though it’s not especially noticeable, the edge in screen time unsurprisingly belongs to Jolie, who nevertheless resists all hint of making the movie her own. In many ways this movie is about Mariane Pearl, and the decision to have a movie star play her—among the few recognizable faces in the film, the others include Will Patton and Jillian Armenante—has revived an old debate about the on-screen benefits of celebrity and its pitfalls. No one seems to doubt Jolie’s intentions, only her ability to survive them.
I can speak only for myself, but, if fleetingly, I forgot this woman is Angelina Jolie. This feat is indebted not only to her performance, which is strong and resilient, but to the intensity of Winterbottom’s vision. A Mighty Heart is the director’s first studio movie, a fact noted by some with veiled dismissal, but he never loses sight of the next development, the next destination, even when the film pauses for moments of intimacy between Danny and Mariane that predate the story at hand. That Jolie’s fame is inescapable I concede. But this is about as far from a conventional star vehicle as a film can come, one of the most unassuming and least exploitative movies ever made about a contemporary tragedy.
To that end, the movie never shows anything other than the images of a kidnapped Pearl provided to the media, and the video of his death remains off-screen, for the final act of violence is a horror the film refuses to lionize. A few scenes after Pearl’s death becomes clear, the movie notes without a hint of smugness the death of ten others under similar circumstances, all of them Pakistani. In an ensuing scene, without contrivance or cloying sentimentality, Mariane dines with the people at the heart of the attempt to save her husband, and tells them that despite his death, they didn’t fail. If the kidnappers sought to frighten her and the world, they failed. “I am not terrorized,” she says, “and you can’t be terrorized.” On its own the line sounds painfully naive, so easy, but by the film’s final shot of Mariane leading her young son through the streets of Paris, if only for the moment, you listen and believe.
A Mighty Heart is currently in wide release.