A Mighty Heart
Director Michael Winterbottom is no stranger to docudrama or the West’s relationship to Islamic terrorism (see: 2006’s The Road to Guantanamo). This time, he adapts Mariane Pearl’s A Mighty Heart: The Brave Life and Death of My Husband, Daniel Pearl, her 2003 memoir recounting her husband’s ’02 abduction in Pakistan. Daniel Pearl (played by Dan Futterman) served as South Asia bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal and visited Pakistan with Mariane (Angelina Jolie) to cover terrorism. En route to interview a supposed terrorist leader, Daniel was kidnapped and held for ransom, with demands ranging from humane treatment of Guantanamo detainees to the release of American-held Pakistani prisoners. A Mighty Heart follows the joint U.S.-Pakistani investigation and Mariane’s own torturous experience, standing vigil for almost a month before the video of his execution halted the rescue hunt.
From the opening credits, Winterbottom sets an abrupt, choppy tone through barrages of quick shots, wobbly hand cameras, and jerky cinematography. The relentless style eventually overshadows every other aspect of the movie, eclipsing even the charismatic and convincing Jolie. It feels journalistic, like a television crew struggling to keep up with a flurry of events unfolding all around them. As Mariane Pearl was herself a correspondent for French public radio, this comes as little surprise. The atmosphere creates a gritty realism by creating the feel of a breaking TV news special, but the same effect also distances the audience: it’s not real, it’s on TV.
While there’s little immediacy to all the clutter, it does create a sense of the exhaustion weighing down the investigation team. To this end, Heart’s greatest effect is a simple dry-erase board, starting with a few names and arrows, and spilling outward, inward, and crosswise in a tangle of leads and dead ends. The seemingly endless repetition of arrests, uncovered e-mails, traced phone numbers, witness interviews, and uncooperative suspects exacts a visible toll on the investigators, and their frustration becomes violently apparent as more than one suspect finds himself being “firmly interrogated.”
Occasionally thrilling and poignant, A Mighty Heart simply can’t sustain either sensation for long. Is it a memoir? A thriller “based on real events?” A case study in personal ordeal? Or perhaps a political “statement” movie? It’s a little bit of each, but it never completely melds all four into a tour de force. As hard as it tries to feel personal, there are simply too many characters crowding the story, and little intimacy with any of them. Mariane Pearl, the emotional centerpiece, still holds the world at arm’s length even while trying to tell her harrowing tale, and it makes for a bumpy ride. A dispassionate story about passion, it feels—and is—obscured through the murky lens of journalism.