Angelina Jolie and Dan Futterman in A Mighty Heart.
With every clue, a squeak.
That would be from the black Sharpie that Mariane Pearl uncorked each time a fresh bit of information came in or a new name was tossed around or another suspect was sought - and sometimes tortured in her name, without her knowledge. She would scrawl the new lead on a whiteboard, which soon became a chaotic cross-thatch of references and numbers, resembling a flow chart. Her husband was Daniel Pearl, the South Asia bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, and he'd been missing.
In early 2002, he was following leads on Richard Reid, the would-be "shoe bomber;" he arranged an interview with a sheikh known for anti-American propaganda - but Pearl was no cub reporter. The meeting was set for a public place in Karachi, Pakistan, where Pearl lived with his wife. He was a smart, careful guy. The last time he spoke to his wife he was on the way to the meeting. She was shopping for a dinner party they were throwing. He told her he wouldn't be long, and yet that night, as their guests waited, and Mariane nervously checked then rechecked her cell phone, his seat remained empty.
So here we are:
Angelina Jolie plays Mariane, her skin so glowingly smooth it's even more distracting than the actress' own vintage-era movie star sheen. Michael Winterbottom, the ambitious, street-level English master, is the director. And the picture, about the worst month of Mariane Pearl's life, A Mighty Heart, which opens today in Toledo and is adapted from Mariane's memoir of the same title, is the finest example yet of the strengths and limitations that come with making films about our post-9/11 labyrinth. There is poetry in the faces and setting, but not the storytelling - if you want to understand how complex the world has become, you could do worse than A Mighty Heart, but if you want to feel that weight, look elsewhere.
That's hard to write, because A Mighty Heart is a good movie, a wise movie, and Winterbottom is one of the best (and unquestionably, the most underrated) filmmakers working today, and Jolie gives her most nuanced performance to date. And yet the whole enchilada stops short of the resonance that art provides. But I could be missing the point: More than most tales of woe to unspool out of the dark labyrinth of 9/11, the story of Daniel Pearl, murdered by his Islamic militant kidnappers, has always seemed the most ripe for a sugary act of Hollywood uplift and, therefore, trivialization. Mariane was pregnant, she was strong. But this is never a cornball film and not the feel-good-feel-bad TV-movie a lot of us feared it would be.
It has too much respect.
Winterbottom has delved before into politics and the personal hell of an international situation, with Welcome to Sarajevo, In This World, and last year, the little-seen Road to Guantanamo (those last two set not far from Karachi). He never tarts up; his instincts are too blunt to allow a cheap bone in his body. Even when his subject is lighter, such as Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story or the classic 24-Hour Party People, his favorite subject remains, in a sense, interruption - the myriad of ways we are vulnerable, personally or violently.
In Mariane Pearl, who is the real subject of the film and the book, as much as the concern is elsewhere, Winterbottom has almost the embodiment of his ideals. Melodrama is not Mariane's style, and though a too-ripe drama queen theatricality may be Jolie's style, she restrains herself. Like the picture, she tamps down when emotions threaten to overheat and obscure the point. Which is a sort of definition of journalism. Mariane, a journalist herself, is French, with Cuban and Dutch parents, and difficult as it is to set aside Jolie's larger-than-life aura, the actress erases herself; surprisingly, she's the least obvious thing in here.
Once Pearl (played to eerie perfection by Dan Futterman) is kidnapped, A Mighty Heart is primarily a police procedural - or more to the point, a dispassionate work of reporting. We only know what we know, and never see Pearl in captivity (and no, we never see his eventual beheading). Jolie glides through the room (in a friend's house) that has become the command center for the Pakistani police. But the friend (played by Archie Panjabi) is Indian, and so border rivalries flare, and Pakistani officials suspect she's a traitor. The kidnappers (we learn in their letters) suspect Daniel is Mossad; and the Pakistani in charge of the case (played by Irfan Khan, from The Namesake) quietly tries to give his nation some dignity.
The Karachi of A Mighty Heart is bit like that command center: one gets swallowed up, tossed around, left to make their own sense. Like United 93, which also had a forgone conclusion, suspense is replaced with detail. The picture honors Mariane and Daniel by showing them as journalists, not victims; Jolie has a wonderful moment where she embodies the reporter ideal, patiently explaining her husband is one of many kidnap victims, and in context, not special, despite the lavish attention. Combine that with Winterbottom's roving eye catching odd bits of real life (it was shot on location, in the real places), the film has the texture of newsprint, and makes a needed argument for reporting.
What it lacks is the constriction, the feel of a vise tightening, though again, that may be the point. What Daniel Pearl's kidnapping means is left up to us - a noble sentiment, but lacking the terror to go with it, leaving you wondering, as journalism does, as Mariane herself asks, why this horror is special.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org