Daniel Pearl was one of the early casualties of America's War on Terror. A journalist for the Wall Street Journal, he was in Pakistan investigating the trail left behind by Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, when he was kidnapped and eventually executed by a terrorist group. He left behind a wife, Mariane, who was also a journalist. She was pregnant with his first child.
Since his death, Mariane Pearl and the parents of Daniel Pearl have labored to keep his memory alive and to spread a message of cultural understanding, an important factor of Daniel's writing. This film, based on a memoir by Mariane, is part of that endeavor. In some ways successful, in others not so much.
The story of A Mighty Heart is almost chiefly concerned with the search for Daniel after his abduction. Centered in the home of an Indian reporter, Asra Q. Namani (Archie Panjabi), various police agencies from Pakistan and the U.S. band together in a completely apolitical fashion to join Daniel's co-workers and his distraught wife (Angelina Jolie) in trying to put together the labyrinthine plot to capture the reporter. Director Michael Winterbottom (In This World, Welcome to Sarajevo) is a perfect choice for this kind of subject matter. Favoring hand-held camera work and naturalistic lighting, his films often have the immediacy of on-the-spot documentaries. Using jittery editing to keep the action moving, he makes movies that feel like a string of captured moments. There is never a scene in A Mighty Heart that feels like it has been contrived for the camera. Winterbottom makes you feel like you are right there in the thick of things, standing in the room and watching.
Unfortunately, this approach can sometimes be too clinical, more about watching the drama rather than experiencing it. Everything here is about the manhunt, and sometimes it feels like A Mighty Heart has forgotten the man. Sure, there is a sense of urgency to the proceedings and when the cops go out and break down doors trying to find people who might be involved, the tension is positively spellbinding. Yet, Winterbottom consistently keeps the real emotion at arm's length. Everything is calm, collected, and ordered. The director leads us to understand the seriousness of the operation, but he tends to leave out the essential information about who they are looking for. I didn't really feel like I got to know Daniel Pearl (played here by Dan Futterman) or what he was about.
Likewise, even though Mariane Pearl is the focal point of the story, she remains somewhat of an enigma, as well. Granted, this is not entirely Winterbottom's fault, as Mariane's unwavering resolve is one of the only constants in the endless barrage of information that goes through the command center. Jolie is amazing in the part, completely obliterating her over-exposed public image to become Mariane. The actress plays her as a guarded woman who does everything she can to keep from succumbing to her grief, to show a public face that won't crack under the pressure. Yet, as a filmmaker, Winterbottom has more tools at his employ, so it's frustrating that he never turns to them. I don't know how much Mariane Pearl opened up emotionally in her book, but the movie only starts to dig into her love for her husband on a very superficial level, employing very brief flashbacks of their passion and their romance. It doesn't really feel like enough.
It's possible that this is a calculated risk on Winterbottom's part, that he is holding back until it really matters. When the news of Daniel Pearl's murder reaches his wife, Mariane disappears into her bedroom and lets out a primal wail that is piercing and anguished. It is one of the more shattering expressions of grief I've ever seen on film, and the director cranks the volume so that you can feel this woman's scream deep in your bones. Still, it's a risk that doesn't fully pay off. Jolie is far deeper in her role than the movie is going to let the audience be privy to. Letting us peek all the way inside the tragedy for one five-minute scene still leaves ninety-five minutes where A Mighty Heart merely mills about on the surface.
I guess what it really comes down to is that A Mighty Heart needed a broader human scope if it was going to be a dramatized version of events. Staying this reined in, if Winterbottom wanted the movie to be all about the clinical facts about what really happened, leaving out the passion and the politics, then maybe it would have been better off as a documentary. Good intentions, not-so-good results. Or, at least, not as good as it could have been had a few less opportunities been missed.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.