In many ways, "Mighty Heart" is a natural extension of last year's masterpiece, "United 93." Both films bravely dramatize real-world terror in increasingly artistic ways that lack exploitation, emphasizing the emotional reality and fear when faced with acts of terrorism. However, "Heart" comes from filmmaker Michael Winterbottom, a director who isn't known for his acute expression of feelings.
On assignment soon after 9/11 in Karachi, Pakistan, journalist Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman, at his most frustratingly distanced) was chasing the trail of terrorist Richard Reid when he was kidnapped. At home, his wife Mariane (Angelina Jolie), at five month's pregnant, became a driving force to bring her husband home. Through arrests, interrogation, betrayals, and false leads, the case to find Pearl lasted a month before it was learned that the beloved reported, husband, and father-to-be was beheaded by Pakistan terrorists.
"Heart" approaches the story of Pearl through chilly exhibition. Winterbottom appreciates how the hunt for Pearl was carried out instead of lamenting the tragedy that met the world at the end of speculation. In many ways, this is how "Heart" can breathe and inch toward the horror without losing its step.
"Heart" isn't a history lesson, but more a procedural drama watching government forces from several countries team up to find Pearl. It's antiseptic filmmaking, relying on the facts and rumors of the tense time to erect a tale of semi-suspense and clarification. Clouded in rightful displays of anger and mourning, it's interesting to see Pearl's last steps played out again; the director paints a disturbing portrait of terrorist baiting and manipulation that no one could've foreseen.
Like "United 93," "Heart" isn't ghoulish or a piece of activism - a concept that Winterbottom has struggled with in recent years as his vision was slowly drained by his arrogance. This is filmmaker who not long ago made striking portraits of loneliness ("Wonderland") and politics (Welcome to Sarajevo"), but soon lost his patience with the film world and was flushed into an oeuvre of tedious experimentation. "Heart" allows Winterbottom to locate a focal point again, concentrating his gifts on delicately creating a story that has little need for political rhetoric or excessive melodrama.
In fact, the emotion that manages to tiptoe into the film is massaged powerfully by the filmmaker, choosing carefully the moments of Mariane's despair and ultimately her cathartic wail that greets the news of Daniel's beheading. Jolie and Winterbottom seem to have this heavily considered game plan for reveal, and "Heart" is all the more striking because of it. Jolie is allowed to retain Mariane's remarkable poise in the face of loss, and the director doesn't have to succumb to a syrupy, mournful tone the rest of the film hasn't been prepped for.
"Mighty Heart" is not easy cinema to absorb, but this film is not interested in distress. The story told here is one of lives shattered and hope restored, vividly encapsulating sacrifice and loss in a world gone mad.
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