It seems there are two Angelina Jolies. First, the sexy starlet who injects a dose of worldly insouciance into empty-headed Hollywood fare like Mr. And Mrs. Smith while gracing the covers of countless tabloid magazines. Then there’s the globetrotting philanthropist and UN Goodwill ambassador who talks shop with Colin Powell, adopts kids from Third World countries, and gives a chunk of her income to charity. How to reconcile the two is a popular pressroom pastime.
Jolie’s high-profile visits to underprivileged nations-seen by some as more attention-getting than aid-inducing-has made her the target of scorn and parody. "Never mistrust a good deed," instructed a spiritual advisor, and I’m frankly impatient with the cynical naysayers who doubt the sincerity of Jolie’s humanitarian efforts. There are more ignoble ways of getting attention, to say the least, as frequent gossip rag glamour girls like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan attest. In any case, the two faces of Angelina Jolie-the movie star and the inveterate do-gooder-fuse in A Might Heart, the compelling new film about the kidnapping of American journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan five years ago.
Actually, that’s not quite accurate. Though Mariane Pearl’s book of the same name attributed the "mighty heart" of the title to her husband, filmgoers will be hard-pressed not to associate the descriptor with Mariane herself, as played by a typically fierce Jolie. Mariane is Daniel’s French-born wife who, while five months pregnant, endured unimaginable pain, anxiety, and grief as she took part in the frantic, month-long search for her kidnapped husband-a futile search that met a tragic end.
The two faces of Angelina Jolie, the movie star and the inveterate do-gooder, fuse in A Mighty Heart.
One can’t help but suspect that a film this grim wouldn’t have been made if its financial backers hadn’t hitched their wagon to a star. Jolie’s is the only instantly recognizable face in a fine ensemble of character actors, but there’s the rub-would the wrenching, real-life story behind A Mighty Heart have been better served by an actor with less star wattage (and tabloid baggage)? An actress like Thandie Newton would have worked brilliantly in the role, though I suppose such conjectures amount to little more than a pointless parlor game. Jolie stands at the front-and-center of this worthy project, the proverbial elephant-in-the-room.
Even with a wig of dark curls, brown contact lenses, and a French accent, there’s no disguising the pillowy lips and statuesque bone structure that earned Jolie the coveted crown of ‘Sexiest Woman Alive,’ or however People magazine puts it. You’re always aware that it’s Jolie onscreen, true, yet distraction very soon yields to admiration for her focused performance and willingness to concede the limelight to her costars. Again, the undeniable advantage of a mega movie star’s presence is that casual moviegoers curious to check out the latest Jolie flick will discover themselves absorbed in an effective, topical political thriller.
The real Mariane Pearl sets the context with a voice-over at the beginning of the film. She and her husband are journalists assigned to the Middle East to cover the clash between Al Qaeda and the West. Early scenes in the film establish Mr. And Mrs. Pearl as young, bright, and happily expectant parents. As journalists, they are devoted to the ideal that they can better the world by reporting on its events with clear-sighted integrity. Their work takes them to Karachi, Pakistan, one of the largest cities in the world, a place where the dusty labyrinth of crowded streets are a constant hive of foot, bike, and motor traffic. A place where one captured man can be easily concealed.
Daniel, who writes for the Wall Street Journal, snags an interview with Shiekh Gilani, a Muslim cleric with suspected ties to al Qaeda. His contacts in Karachi keep asking him if the meeting will happen in a public place. The question takes on a foreboding air. As it turns out, the interview with Shiekh Gilani was indeed bait to lure Danny into a Qaeda kidnapping conspiracy. When one of the conspirators is later asked why Pearl was the chosen target, he responds, "Because he was American."
Like his compatriot, Paul Greengrass (United 93), director Michael Winterbottom has mastered a bracing, docudrama style…
Those who followed the media coverage of Daniel Pearl’s capture, captivity, and subsequent execution can’t help but squirm as the events of the film unfold. The main bulk of the proceedings involve Mariane’s emotional rollercoaster as she and a team of Pakistani counterterrorist detectives and American FBI officers race against a deadline to free Danny. Knowing the outcome of the story casts a pall of dread and dark fatalism as the investigators desperately attempt to slice through the Gordian-knotted Qaeda network to find Danny and rescue him.
In charting this thorny path, A Mighty Heart is admirably unsentimental and non-sensationalistic. A wise, tactful choice was made to not show onscreen the infamous footage of Pearl’s gruesome beheading. The stunned, silent faces of those seeing the video in the film act as effective mirrors to our own mute horror when the footage was first leaked to the media in early 2002. To include the footage would have seemed jarring and distasteful in an otherwise documentary-like treatment of the events.
Michael Winterbottom, an eclectic director with a documentary background (his Road to Guantánamo would make an interesting companion piece to this film), was a smart pick to helm A Mighty Heart’s tough, bleak material. Like his compatriot, Paul Greengrass (United 93), Winterbottom has mastered a bracing, docudrama style that relies heavily on handheld cameras, rapid-fire editing, and no-glamour lighting to create an atmosphere of tension, anxiety, and disorientation.
Those who followed the media coverage of Daniel Pearl’s capture, captivity, and subsequent execution can’t help but squirm as the events of the film unfold.
Winterbottom especially shines in his evocation of Karachi itself as a vital organism, a beast threatening to swallow those unfamiliar with it. Mariane’s opening voice-over informs the viewer that Karachi is so overpopulated that no accurate count has even been made of its inhabitants. "How could one man ever be found?" she asks, and Karachi does indeed impose itself as a force to reckoned with. It functions like a dual narrative-as crowded, confusing, and labyrinthine as the kidnapping case which sends the investigators into its buzzing, neon-lit, teeming streets to try and find that one man. Gritty realism’ is the go-to phrase here, but the filmmakers bolster their visceral visual style with conviction-this is a story worth telling and worth telling right-and the headlong rush of scenes speed by in a blur of movement while the sense of mounting anger and frustration on Mariane’s part is palpable.
Indeed, many of the adrenaline-pumping sequences play like stray bits from a straightforward thriller. Yet when the audience already knows the ending, the value of action-movie tropes becomes questionable. Winterbottom hammers Mariane Pearl’s powerfully personal narrative into a police procedural-cum-political thriller, with the requisite false leads, dead-end trails, brutal interrogations, raids, red herrings, shoot-outs, and agents barking orders into their cell phones. These are all hallmarks of the thriller genre, and A Mighty Heart’s summer release means it’s competing for audience attention with a line-up of popcorn flicks like Transformers and Die Hard 4. In a full-page advertisement in the New York Times, Maxim magazine praised A Mighty Heart as "an edge-of-your-seat suspense thriller." Should tragedy be recycled as summer movie entertainment? Since tragedy inevitably will be recycled into the mainstream, a better question would be, ‘how best to go about it?’
Post 9-11 art has generally approached the subject with the tentativeness of a ticking time bomb. Writers, artists, and filmmakers opt to examine the event from an oblique angle. Novelists like Ian McEwan, John Updike, and Don Delillo filter the political through the personal, settling for closely observed character pieces instead of a wider-angled view of the geopolitical narrative. Likewise, recent 9-11 themed films like United 93 and World Trade Center kept to the man-on-the-street perspective, never mentioning Osama bin Laden or examining the wider political context behind the attacks. For the moment, I think this is the right approach: the implications of 9-11 remain too complex and wide-ranging to allow for comprehensive treatment.
The message is clear: life and love are the most effective retaliation against terrorism.
Unfortunately, A Mighty Heart, despite its heart-wrenching storyline, never quite manages to be an insightful character study. Intimate connections with the protagonists are lost in the procedural hustle and bustle. Danny has a few brief scenes at the beginning of the film and is thereafter only glimpsed in even briefer flashbacks. This puts actor Dan Futterman in the difficult position of incarnating an ideal rather than a fully realized character. Some fleeting vignettes paint him as an attentive husband, supportive soon-to-be father, and meticulous journalist. The fact that he loves his wife’s smile is the most defining feature of his broadly sketched personality.
Viewers are left to fill in the thematic gaps, and the movie’s elliptical, fast-paced style leaves plenty of room for post-viewing pondering. Winterbottom and his screenwriter, John Orloff, don’t shy away from provocative territory: in one scene the Captain of Pakistan’s counterterrorist organization tortures a member of al Qaeda for information. This scene raises the very serious question of how far the hunters should go to catch the hunted. Should they become what they seek in the name of justice? Do such methods tarnish the very idea of justice?
Another compelling, if subterranean, theme of the film is that of religious cooperation. The team that assembles to locate and rescue Daniel Pearl is a multinational, multi-faith cadre: Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim. They are set against fanatical jihadists who traffic in hatred and prejudice in the name of a vengeful God.
The terrorists prey on fear and Mariane, even after the death of her husband, says bluntly, "I am not afraid." That is why A Mighty Heart manages to be strangely uplifting despite the heavy subject matter. One of the most interesting elements of Mariane’s personal drama is touched on in the film but not explored with any depth-her forgiveness of her husband’s killers. This forgiveness is not exactly of the ‘turn the other cheek’ variety; Mariane knows that terrorists feed on fear and her refusal to play into their hands by demanding retribution is an unqualified victory. As Oscar Wilde put it, "Forgive your enemies-nothing annoys them so much." As the piercing cries of Mariane’s grief over her husband’s death become the piercing cries of childbirth, the message is clear: life and love are the most effective retaliation against terrorism.
A Mighty Heart splits the difference between last year’s United 93-a no-frills docudrama featuring unknown actors-and World Trade Center, Oliver Stone’s slick, sentimental, and unabashedly mainstream melodrama starring Nicolas Cage. It raises thought-provoking questions, not least about the nature of filmic treatments of 9-11 themed stories. While it may be a flawed film, it’s unquestionably well-intentioned and effective. Never mistrust a good deed.