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Keeping It Real

By JAMES PARKER  |  June 20, 2007

Then this past year’s The Road to Guantánamo told the story of the Tipton Three: Ruhal Ahmed, Asif Iqbal, and Shafiq Rasul, all from Tipton in Britain’s West Midlands, who were arrested in Afghanistan in 2001, handed over to US forces, and held for two years in extrajudicial detention at Guantánamo Bay. No evidence could be found linking them to the Taliban or Al Qaeda; they were never charged; they were guilty of nothing more than the virile idiocy of wandering into a war zone to check it out (they were supposed to be at a wedding in Pakistan); but in the pens at Camp X-Ray they were on the cutting edge of US foreign policy, and none of that mattered. The guards bellowing “Shut the fuck up! Eyes down! Shut the fuck up!” were the heralds of a new narrative, imposed by force, unable to accommodate the least flicker of divergence. By intercutting news footage and scenes played by actors with interviews of the Tipton Three, Winterbottom created a hybrid form of documentary peculiarly apt to a situation in which reality itself was at stake. The pervasive artificiality of Camp X-Ray, its visual and psychic overkill, comes through: the orange-clad prisoners kenneled in their wire compartments, the masked and armored “response team” double-timing into the cage of a defenseless man to deliver a beating.

A Mighty Heart features Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl, pregnant wife of journalist Daniel, thrust suddenly into an underworld of anxiety by the kidnapping of her husband in Karachi. The film will eventually be found in the drama section of your local video emporium, but it shares with In This World and The Road to Guantánamo — and indeed with Greengrass’s United 93 — a particular undramatic flatness that is the hallmark of the new method.

Winterbottom and Greengrass: paired up, the names sound as if they come from some piece of Elizabethan theatrical fustian, something in which rouged and strutting thespians deliver loud, improbable monologues. But in the films of these men, both British, is an understated horror of rhetoric and sentimentality. No grandstanding, no star turns: events, refracted through other events, must find their own focus. When David Alan Basche, playing Todd Beamer in United 93, arrives at Beamer’s legendary “Let’s roll!” — a line that has been wheeled out, barnacled with bombast, by speechmakers from George W. Bush on down — he rushes over it in an urgent mutter. The characters in A Mighty Heart are similarly burdened and harried, too busy for magniloquence.

“We don’t really rehearse,” says Winterbottom. “We just film the scene from a lot of different angles and points of view, and the actors have to listen to each other and react. They have to be there, responding, across the whole five- or 10-minute take. In a conventional film you can make sure that you’re on the right shot at the right moment: you have a close-up, your whole mise en scène emphasizes the story line. The way we shoot, we don’t have that luxury. So you’re not pushing that one moment as the key moment, or one emotion as the key emotion. Which means that, when the audience is watching it, it’s a different thing: it’s not quite as dramatic, it’s not quite as tragic, it’s not quite as . . . manipulated is the wrong word, because I don’t think it’s a bad thing. It’s not quite as targeted. It’s more open.”

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