Mighty Heart, A (United Kingdom/United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Most world renowned people have achieved that status as a result of something accomplished during their lives. Unfortunately, Daniel Pearl was among the few who became famous as a result of his death. Pearl's kidnapping and subsequent death at the hands of terrorists became a major media story during January and February 2002, as the United States was beginning to flex its muscles overseas in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks. A video leaked to the Internet showing Pearl's decapitation magnified the tragedy. A Mighty Heart, Michael Winterbottom's interpretation of the memoir written by Pearl's widow, Mariane, examines events of that one month period from the perspective of those who sought Daniel's release: his pregnant wife, his friends and colleagues at The Wall Street Journal, and the Pakistani security forces. The film is fascinating and at times disturbing, but Winterbottom's arms-length style mutes any emotional impact.

At the time of his capture, Daniel (Dan Futterman) was based in Karachi, Pakistan along with his wife, Mariane (Angelina Jolie). He was researching a story about possible links between would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid, Al Qaeda, and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence. While on his way to interview a religious leader, Daniel was nabbed by "Bashir" (Aly Khan) and taken to a secret location. Demands were made as a condition of his release. Pakistani security agents, Wall Street Journal reporters, and others rallied around Mariane, attempting to discover who had taken Daniel. Secretary of State Colin Powell became involved. Ultimately, although many of those associated with the crime were arrested, Daniel could not be saved. He was beheaded on February 1, and the world came to know about it soon after.

Although A Mighty Heart is about Pearl's capture and death, he's not in much of the film. After his kidnapping, he is shown only briefly via flashbacks. Instead of portraying Daniel's ordeal, the story stays with Mariane and the men seeking to uncover Daniel's whereabouts. For Mariane, it's a difficult week-and-a-half, as she battles despair and uncertainty. She makes a public appeal to the terrorists and, lying in bed at night, sends text messages reading "I love you" to Daniel's turned-off cell phone.

Winterbottom elects to film the movie in pseudo-documentary style, employing lots of shaky handheld camera shots. While this provides a "you are there" perspective, it also distances the audiences from the characters. We end up watching the proceedings unfold almost clinically. We are intrigued by the methods employed by the Pakistani security forces to locate Daniel and the complexity of the web of interconnections that emerges (the white board is a useful crib sheet that helps to simplify things) but not moved by Mariane's plight. The fact that everyone in the theater likely knows that Daniel will die (and how he will die) also defuses potential tension. Filmed in a different way, this screenplay could have formed the basis of a thriller. That, however, is not Winterbottom's goal.

If the movie is emotionally flat, it has nothing to do with Angelina Jolie's performance. Her Mariane is a compelling and complex individual. For eight days, she retains her equanimity - tightly coiled but holding it together. One man comments that he can't imagine someone so restrained is in the midst of such a crisis. There are little moments when Jolie lets us peer through the carefully guarded exterior, such as when Mariane is alone in bed. When incontrovertible news arrives about Daniel's fate, Mariane loses it. This is the clip that will be used to push Jolie's claim to an Oscar nomination. It's raw and powerful and feels like the genuine reaction of a pent-up volcano exploding through a cap.

Winterbottom is a political director - his The Road to Guantanamo - is a fairly open attack on U.S. policy regarding the Cuban detainee facility. It's therefore interesting that A Mighty Heart is completely non-political. The movie tells its story without making statements for or against any of the groups involved. A Mighty Heart's perspective is exclusively that of the individuals caught up in this tragedy. By staying focused on Mariane, it avoids global ramifications. There's an unspoken statement about the necessity for a free press, but that is never verbalized. Why does Daniel put himself in harm's way? Because the story must be told.

Despite its curiously stoic tone, A Mighty Heart retains its capacity to fascinate and intrigue. The film provides a lot of behind-the-scenes information about the investigation. It's also circumspect when it comes to representing Daniel's death. We see the reactions of others watching the video but Winterbottom does not feel the need to recreate the journalist's gruesome end. He uses words, not images, to clarify Daniel's fate, and Mariane's unwillingness to view her husband's murder becomes a major point late in the film. This restraint is emblematic of the entire picture. While A Mighty Heart may not be the most complete film that could be made about the story, its insider point-of-view gives it a vantage that a more comprehensive movie might not have.

Mighty Heart, A (United Kingdom/United States, 2007)

Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 2007-06-22
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1