No one will know what Danny Pearl felt as he was kidnapped, held prisoner, and beheaded by jihadist fanatics. Or what his widow, six months pregnant, felt as she waited for the terrible outcome. There is Mariane Pearl’s memoir of the experience, but beyond that, maybe it’s best to remain silent.
VIDEO: The trailer for A Mighty Heart
So what to say about Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of Mariane’s book? No doubt all involved in making the film — which Mariane gave her full endorsement and cooperation — had the best intentions. Nonetheless, it verges on exploitation, a voyeuristic indulgence in grief and violence. Part tearjerker, part 24-style ticking-time-bomb thriller complete with brutal interrogations, and part Oscar-campaign highlight reel for Angelina Jolie’s portrayal of Mariane, it’s one of Winterbottom’s most incoherent and conventional films — and it will probably be his most popular and successful one.
A Mighty Heart does clarify details about the event that you might have missed in the overall horror. “The day after 9/11,” Mariane’s voiceover narration begins, “Dan and I went to Pakistan.” Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman) was in Karachi as South Asian bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. On January 23, 2002, he went out to conduct an interview while researching a story on shoe-bomber Richard Reid. He never returned.
We know the date because Winterbottom provides it in a title, as he does throughout when he’s in his just-the-facts, cinéma-vérité, shot-at-the-actual-locations mode. He captures with electric authority the intermittent chaos, the methodic measures, and the short-lived exhilaration of the search as well as the dramatic collaborations and conflicts of the various searchers, who included Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, the FBI, and Mariane (an accomplished journalist) herself. It’s a harrowing, fascinating, ultimately terrible tale, and an intense, ambiguous performance galvanizes it. Not Jolie’s, but Irrfan Khan’s as Captain, the head of the Pakistani unit, a professional not averse to extreme means but vastly more complex in his response to them than, say, Jack Bauer.
That’s not to say that Winterbottom refuses to exploit viewers’ desire for payback. Whatever your politics, the scenes in which suspects are coaxed into disclosing information will probably give you as much satisfaction as they do the oddly unwholesome Randall Bennett (Will Patton) of the US Consulate.
That I find excusable. What’s harder to take is the idea that the film isn’t about Mariane so much as it is about Angelina Jolie. She does it all: steely determination, fury, and in the movie’s most dubious scene, a lengthy breakdown into total, wailing grief. Winterbottom has the taste and good sense not to show the awful images — videotaped and posted by the terrorists on the Internet — of Daniel Pearl’s death. (He does show reactions to it, which is a bit questionable.) This breakdown, however, is equally intimate and awful. Maybe if an unknown actress had played the part, I’d feel less compromised by the scene. Instead, it seems like a vehicle, a moment that we’ll doubtless see again at the Oscar broadcast, when Jolie is announced as one of the five nominees for Best Actress.