A film review by Craig J. Koban



Rank: # 20


2007, R, 100 mins.

Mariane Pearl: Angelina Jolie / Daniel Pearl: Dan Futterman / Agent Bennett: Will Patton / John Bussey: Denis O'Hare / Asra: Archie Panjabi

Directed by Michael Winterbottom /  Written by John Orloff / Based on the memoir by Mariane Pearl.

The emotional epicenter of Michael Winterbottom’s gripping and riveting A MIGHTY HEART is the career high, tour de force performance by Angelina Jolie.  For 100 minutes she accomplishes what all great actors do: she allows for us to forget her baggage as a celebrity and truly inhabits a role so fully and forcefully that her real life persona fades into the background. 

Yes, this is the same Jolie that has had an incredibly public love affair with Brad Pitt and also has highly peculiar adoption habits, but this is also the same Jolie that has reminded us in past films why she is one of the more raw and delicately powerful actresses working today.

A MIGHTY HEART is a film about a very famous post-911 kidnapping, but its true focus is in dealing with the wife of the kidnapped victim, played by Jolie.  Her performance is a textbook and methodical exercise in restrained focus and subverted frustration and pathos.  This is a woman that has seen her husband abruptly snatched by terrorist forces during a time of incredibly socio-political uncertainty in the world and she becomes a fiercely vigilante and strong person as a result. 

She is a tightly coiled cauldron of despair, but she never lets this on to her friends and supporters.  She knows, deep down, that the odds of her husband’s survival are slim, but she nevertheless perseveres and emerges as a hero, not a victim.  Too many film thrillers paint the wife characters as blubbering, one note, hysterical figures that are at their wit’s end.  The “victim” of A MIGHTY HEART uses her situation to almost fuel her resolve.  The tougher the situation gets for her, the more she extrapolates from it to make her a stronger and more courageous woman.  In Jolie’s more-than-competent hands, she becomes a figure that avoids unnecessary grandstanding and instead is emotionally introverted and quietly authentic.  This is a performance that breathes out for Oscar.

Of course, there is the film’s story of the wife’s kidnapped husband, which is told with the breathtaking realism and conviction of a documentary.  A MIGHTY HEART is a largely fact based account of Daniel and Mariane Pearl’s time in Pakistan after September 11, 2001.  Daniel was a reporter working for the Wall Street Journal that was on assignment at the time and Mariane, also a journalist, was pregnant with their first child.  He was looking into a story about possible links between would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid, Al Qaeda, and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. 

On January 23, 2002, while he was on his way for an interview with a religious leader, supporters of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a militant group known as The National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty, kidnapped him.  This group claimed that Pearl was a CIA agent and – through a series of e-mail transmissions – sent the US a list of demands, the most crucial being that they free all Pakistani terrorist detainees and release of a halted US shipment of F-16 fighter jets to the Pakistani government. 

There were even photos of Pearl sent to the US and Mariane.  He was shown bound with a gun pointed to his head.  The militant group did not respond to any of the pleas of the Wall Street Journal’s editor, nor from those of the desperate Mariane.  Then their most gruesome fears became a reality.  Nine days after he was taken, Daniel was found dead.  He was beheaded on February 1 and his body was cut into ten pieces and buried in a shallow gave on the outskirts of Karachi.   Despite all of the attempts by the US government, Wall Street Journal reporters, Pakistani security agents, and Mariane herself, Pearl died a viscous and cruel death and his untimely and ghastly demise hit the media world by storm.  During an emotional trying time when 9/11 was still an open wound for most Americans, Peal’s death only put further salt on them.

A MIGHTY HEART is not so much a screen biography of Daniel and his wife as it is a stirring and unapologetically disturbing examination of the efforts of Mariane and company to save his life.  Winterbottom found inspiration for the film in Mariane’s own memoirs that she wrote when she became a widow.  Instead of dealing with Daniel’s life leading up to the Karachi kidnapping, it wisely drops the viewers almost right in the middle of it and subsequently deals with Mariane and everyone around her trying to discover his whereabouts. 

It would have been so deceptively easy for a lesser filmmaker to helm a sensationalistic portrait of Peal’s grisly demise.  Thankfully, Winterbottom’s approach here is equal parts tense and restrained (he wisely never attempts to thoroughly recapture Daniel’s infamous beheading video that was actually leaked; he only shows reactions to it).  The film is rigidly anti-climatic (we know precisely what the outcome will be), but A MIGHTY HEART is indicative of how a brilliant director and script can take a famous story and still make it enthralling and fascinating.

Perhaps the best thing that Winterbottom does here is with his aesthetic choices.  Very much like UNITED 93,  A MIGHTY HEART uses a loose, naturalistic, fly-on-the-wall perspective of filming.  This has been a trademark of some of Winterbottom’s past works, and he uses it here to create an undeniably realistic portrait of past events.  Some have criticized this approach for emotionally stunting the film’s effect and for not allowing us to resonate with the film’s characters as systematically. 

To the contrary, Winterbottom’s free-floating, improvisational style forges such a complete being there sensation that you do feel like you are watching a behind the scenes documentary.  Again, like Paul Greengrass’ UNITED 93, A MIGHTY HEART exists as an intimate in-the-moment experience.  By not exploiting the Pearl tragedy – but also by not sugarcoating it – Winterbottom does a virtuoso job of thrusting the viewer smack dab in the middle of the events like a silent, neutral witness.  In this way, the film creates an unmistakable emotional connection with the audience that’s more palpable than if it were done by traditional, glossy Hollywood standards.

Crucial to the film’s emotional impact is in its tactful handling of Daniel Pearl himself (played by Dan Futterman).  He does not appear very much in the film and the film’s sparse expository scenes very simplistically establish his relationship with Mariane (Jolie) and his work in Pakistan.  His early moments are bathed in everyday normalcy.  When he leaves for the day it’s essentially like any other.  When he is kidnapped its jarring and abrupt.  The film does juxtapose the present day with segments of Pearl’s life before the kidnapping, but it never dwells on them, nor does it present any scene from Daniel’s perspective while he is kidnapped.  This story is told ostensibly through the eyes of his wife and all of those that supported her on her mission to track him down.  Having scenes dealing with Daniel and his captors would have been unnecessary.  By having him in the background the film recreates the horror, insanity, and impact of the event.  This also does an even better job of embellishing how Mariane and her supporters engaged on a troubling and frustrating chess game in order to find his whereabouts.

A MIGHTY HEART could have taken the road of a standard, made-for-TV police procedural.  Yet, it’s more tense and thrilling in its simple scenes of how Mariane and everyone around her use all of their detective might to uncover clues, only to be thrown into dead ends and being forced to start over.  What’s truly remarkable about the film is how Mariane maintained such a stoic and stern facade during the entire ordeal.  A MIGHTY HEART almost inevitably becomes less about Daniel’s kidnapping and more about Mariane’s stunning and increasingly difficult task of maintaining her dignity and composure. 

In many ways, A MIGHTY HEART grows increasingly difficult to watch as it progresses, especially when we see the unwavering hope in Mariane’s eyes; her love conquers all of her worst fears, and the irony is that we know what she does not.  When Mariane sits down for a CNN interview during this nightmare, she is a figure of sturdy vigor.  To watch this woman show such a unilateral front of hope in the face of an unimaginable crisis is inspiring.

Jolie’s performance has come under some sharp scrutiny.  Some critics have lashed out at the actress for playing an ethnic role - further amplifying Hollywood’s discrimination against actors of color.  People who make those ludicrous statements seem to forget that Mariane was multiracial (she is actually one quarter Afro-Cuban and one quarter Chinese), which I think is enough of a validation for any actress playing the role. 

Jolie is physically plausible as Mariane (thanks to hair, wardrobe, and some makeup to de-glamorize herself), but the key to her incredible performance is that it’s less about appearances and more about what’s inside the character.  She displays such formidable restraint and poise throughout the entire film that – when she finally discovers Daniel’s fate – she explodes in one of the most raw and visceral emotional breakdowns in recent movie memory.  Some may think that Jolie overdoes it here for impact, but the key here is that this is a woman that has subjugated grief longer than any normal woman would have.  Jolie nails this moment of excruciating pain with such authority.  The fact that she held herself together for so long is a testament to her courage. 

Michael Winterbottom is a filmmaker of remarkable versatility and variety.  He has made films as diverse as 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE (which documented the Manchester music scene of the late 1970’s), CODE 46 (a sci-fi parable about cloning), TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY (a satire and brilliantly funny comedy about the filming on one of the most unfilmable books ever), and 9 SONGS (an erotic drama that involved unsimulated sex between its actors).  A MIGHT HEART proudly continues his legacy as one of our most gifted and expressive cinematic voices as it creates such an forcefully provocative and intoxicating look at a real world, post 9/11 kidnapping and its terrible results.  With is taut, tense, and wonderfully realized pseudo-documentary camera work (which harkens back to last year’s UNITED 93 as a work of intense verisimilitude), and its Oscar caliber performance by the vanity-stripped Angelina Jolie, A MIGHTY HEART is a harrowing and emotionally wrenching portrait of feminine strength when faced with dire odds.  It's also a refreshingly apolitical work in the way it never sermonizes about its themes nor does it trivialize its real life characters.  As UNITED 93 did so thoroughly and thanklessly, Winterbottom’s film places us in the moment of its history, which allows us to witness it, not passively judge it. 

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