A Mighty Heart
Film review by: Witney Seibold
This is a very topical and very recent story, so, like “United 93” before it, the filmmakers had to tread carefully when telling about the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002 in Pakistan. Luckily, director Michael Winterbottom chooses to focus not on the doubtlessly harrowing experience of Pearl himself (a fictionalization of that could be potentially obscene, picturing Pearl as an archetypal hero, and his kidnappers as snarling comic villains; it would have been the wrong way), but on the investigation surrounding his kidnapping and on the emotional trials of his wife Mariane in particular.
Mariane Pearl (Angelina Jolie), pregnant, and Daniel (Dan Futterman) traveled to Dubai on a journalism outing in 2002. They live in comfort and safety (they even have a live-in assistant, played by Archie Panjabi), they work hard, they are a well-rounded and happy couple. One night after planning on meeting with a supposed militia leader, Daniel vanishes. The next day Mariane begins asking questions. The local police are called in immediately (represented by a very good Irfan Khan). The FBI is called in (represented by Will Patton). The search reveals whom Dan was meeting, and the search becomes frantic. Eventually, kidnappers begin sending pictures of Dan, and making demands. There are jurisdictional disputes, harrowing torture scenes, and tense extended passages with no English spoken or subtitled at all.
“A Mighty Heart” is taut and incredibly well-made. Winterbottom is used to this sort of current event thriller; he was the one behind “The Road to Guantanamo,” “In This World,” and, to a lesser degree, “24-Hour Party People.” He has a talent for keeping you in the moment, like you are there, in recent history, witnessing these fresh atrocities first hand. Even the casting of someone as immediately recognizable as Angelina Jolie distracts very little from the proceedings. Jolie, for her part, does a fine job with the material, even though the part calls for her to do little more than wring her hands a lot, and punctuate scenes with lines of dialogue like “I know he’s alive!”
But (and I mean no offense to the memory of Mr. Pearl, nor to the grueling suspense and tragedy experienced by his family and loved ones), while watching “A Mighty Heart,” I kept asking myself how the story could have been told better. Anyone who was paying attention to the news in 2002, would already know the tragic outcome of events, so putting us through the ringer only serves as a record, a play-by-play of events, and not as an emotional journey. The film seemed more interested in being accurate than compelling. The only emotions we are going to feel are hurt and regret. That, interspersed with footage of Daniel and Mariane in happier times (flashbacks to their wedding, etc.) makes the pain of the whole affair seem a little vulgar. By satying with Mariane, the filmmakers could stay closer to the truth, but never escaped the film’s foregone conclusion.
The next logical idea would be to tell the story from Daniel’s perspective, but, as I have already said, that would have turned the film in too much of a thriller, and the fictional assumptions would have been vulgar (can you imagine Daniel in peril, befriending one of the guards, trying to escape, perhaps a chase scene, hearywarming discussions with his kidnappers, gory close-ups of his torture?). So while “A Mighty Heart” is stellar filmmaking, and contains some fine, fine acting, it’s oblong in its presentation.