Perhaps the most surprising thing about A Mighty Heart -- aside from its effective reminder that Angelina Jolie is much more than just sexy tabloid fodder -- is how utterly unsentimental it is. In telling the horrific real-life story of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter kidnapped and murdered in 2002 by Al Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan, the filmmakers wisely eschew the temptation to preach or crank up the melodrama. They have fashioned a work of considerable pathos and power.
In that respect, A Mighty Heart is a fitting companion piece to Paul Greengrass' spellbinding United 93. Not only do both films tackle the rawness of 9/11 and its legacy, but they do it with almost clinical precision. Like Greengrass, A Mighty Heart director Michael Winterbottom employs a documentarian approach augmented by uneven handheld camerawork and naturalistic lighting. As a result, audiences sense the urgency of the events that unfolds onscreen.
Our perspective is through the eyes of Daniel Pearl's wife, Mariane. The couple live in Karachi, Pakistan, where Danny, as the WSJ's South Asia bureau chief, is covering the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. He has one day left in the city, and he has scrambled to set up a final interview with an elusive Islamic leader. Mariane, five-months pregnant with their first child, goes about her daily routine. Danny has told her he expects to be home a little late, but Mariane grows alarmed when he doesn't make it back in time for a dinner party.
Hours tick by, and Mariane comes to the frightening realization that her husband has been kidnapped. She must suddenly adapt to a new reality as her home is converged upon by Pakistani and American investigators who go through the difficult, but critical, process of collaboration.
The bulk of A Mighty Heart is a police procedural -- and a damn fine one, at that. Winterbottom and screenwriter John Orloff stitch together a dizzying tapestry of potential suspects and suspected connections, false leads and dead ends. Rumors abound, with the facts of Danny Pearl's kidnapping obscured by a wealth of geopolitical considerations. Winterbottom ratchets up the tension by vividly capturing the daily grind of activity in Karachi -- the traffic jams, the bustle on the streets, the cacophony of sounds -- heightening our dread that there is no way that police will be able to find the kidnappers in time to save their hostage.
It is a testament to the mastery of the filmmakers that there's genuine suspense to be had from a case in which only the blissfully ignorant don't already know its tragic outcome. Daniel Pearl was killed in early February of 2002. His decapitation was shot on videotape and then leaked by Al Qaeda to international news media. Daniel Pearl's apparent crimes: He was American, and he was Jewish.
At the time of the motion picture's theatrical release earlier this year, critics fell all over themselves praising Angelina Jolie for her portrayal of Mariane Pearl. To be sure, Jolie gives a magnificently restrained, subtle performance while still retaining her magnetic screen presence. Even so, A Mighty Heart is not simply a star vehicle for the actress. Dan Futterman (perhaps better known as the screenwriter of Capote) gives a natural, relaxed performance as Danny Pearl, whom we see mainly in flashbacks. Other supporting players are equally memorably, particularly Irfan Khan (from The Namesake) as the Pakistani chief investigator and Archie Panjabi as a colleague of Danny's.
The picture quality is simply terrific. Director of cinematography Marcel Zyskind opts for cinema verite stylistics complete with naturalistic lighting and a slightly grainy look well-preserved in the print transfer. The picture is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix doesn't often get a chance to shine here, but there is some impressive sound separation when Winterbottom takes us to the noisy streets of Karachi. The DVD includes audio tracks in Spanish and French. Subtitles are available in English, Spanish and French.
Unfortunately, it's pretty slim offerings. A Journey of Passion: The Making of A Mighty Heart (29:58) is a perfunctory promotional featurette that boasts interviews with Winterbottom, Jolie, Futterman, Panjabi and others.
Committee to Protect Journalists is an eight-minute, 40-second piece about the nonprofit organization. Also included is a Public Service Announcement Introduction with Christianne Amanpour (2:08). Finally, the disc includes previews of Year of the Dog, Margot at the Wedding, Arctic Tale, Stardust and The Kite Runner.
Angelina Jolie won most of the critical accolades for A Mighty Heart, and, while she turns in a commanding performance, it's but one element in a meticulously crafted film. Like 2006's masterful United 93, the picture takes on a recent tragedy that could have easily turned exploitive and instead produces a tense and haunting political thriller.