Few films will ever put a more graphic and poignant face to the issue of terrorism than Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart, which opens today.
Based on the sad and shocking death by beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl by terrorists in Pakistan, it tells its poignant and tragic story through the eyes of his widow Mariane (expertly played by Angelina Jolie).
Also a journalist, Mariane was pregnant when her husband was kidnapped, and Jolie shows the pain and turmoil of separation from a loved one and uncertainty over his fate in vivid, shattering fashion. Here’s a case where it doesn’t seem like a gimmick but an appropriate time to downplay Jolie’s glamour for the role.
While nitpickers have raised questions about the linguistic accuracy of an American white woman attempting to replicate the dialect of someone with a French and Afro-Cuban background, forget that and instead concentrate on how Jolie immerses herself into Marianne Pearl’s persona.
What happened to Danny Pearl unfolds through flashbacks, from his decision to pursue an interview with a noted anti-American sheikh to the fateful cab ride he takes that whisks him to an undisclosed location.
Though he’s chasing an important lead and possible connection to “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, it becomes evident that Pearl (well played by Dan Futterman) has made a major mistake. This was originally designated as a public meeting, but it’s now occurring somewhere off the beaten path. What’s not so clear is how this happened, something that puts a cloud of suspicion over his colleague Asran (Archie Panjabi) and the film never discerns who on the inside (if indeed it was someone in his inner circle) helped set up Pearl.
Still, what makes the film so powerful is watching Jolie visually documenting the stages of heartache Mariane Pearl endured.
There’s the early period when it seems this may be a case of Daniel being late, followed by growing worry over his safety, then the realization of his plight and finally the notification of his death.
The audience sees her steely resolve finally crack, and the true depths of emotional distress and pain communicated. Jolie’s expressions of gut-level despair prove tough to watch, but are chilling.
There are other effective characterizations, especially Will Patton in one of his trademark roles as an efficient, caring soul seeking the truth while being hindered by bureaucratic ineptness.
Where Winterbottom’s film fails (or doesn’t explore) is in the political arena. The complex relationships between America and Pakistan get little discussion, as well as the link between Islamic fundamentalism and cultural politics in either Pakistan or Afghanistan.
In fact Pearl also was probing ties between Reid and the Pakistani police department, another area that doesn’t get much coverage or examination.
The place to go for details about these issues is the book co-written by Pearl and Sarah Crichton. It’s also a source for more detailed background about the personal and professional experiences the Pearls shared prior to the horrific climatic incident.
What A Mighty Heart shows with vigor and precision is the personal impact of terrorism, and the resolve to fight it one courageous woman gained in its shattering aftermath.