By Matt Singer
[Photo: “A Mighty Heart,” Paramount Vantage, 2007]
“A Mighty Heart”‘s opening titles alternate black words on a white background with white words on a black background. Black and white obviously imply opposites; their juxtaposition with white on black suggests something further. From either side of the divide, each faction sees itself as wholly in the right and the other as wholly in the wrong, not unlike how the United States views Islamic terrorists and vice versa.
This is the sort of political landscape in which Michael Winterbottom’s new film is set and in which Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl worked. Pearl (played in the film by Dan Futterman) was in Karachi, Pakistan investigating a lead on a story about shoe bomber Richard Reid when he was kidnapped, held hostage and ultimately murdered. Though his captors claimed Pearl was a spy working for the CIA and the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, Pearl was guilty only of a determination to uncover the truth past the point others might stop out of concern for their own safety.
“A Mighty Heart” never represents Pearl’s captivity, and only includes the briefest and most discrete excerpt of a recreation of the infamous video of the journalist’s murder. Instead, the film follows Daniel’s wife Mariane, played in the film by Angelina Jolie, as she struggles with her husband’s disappearance and, later, his death. Her perspective is one of waiting and hoping, and also of investigating, as officials from both the United States and Pakistan relentlessly scour Karachi for any trace of Daniel.
Despite the fact that anyone who pays even a whiff of attention to current events knows the outcome of the film’s story before they step foot in the theater, “A Mighty Heart” plays like a breathless thriller. Winterbottom digs into the smallest details of Daniel’s search, from shaking down informants to building suspect charts. Though he’s working with a big name movie star, his preferred style here, as in many of his films, is quick and dirty: DV cameras, non-professional actors and real locations. Even the acting is low-key; the dialogue is peppered with pauses and other traces of the heavy improvisation that went into making the film. It’s hard to remember at times not only that this is not a documentary, but that the outcome is already predetermined you become so invested in Mariane’s journey that you find yourself hoping and praying for Daniel’s safe return right alongside her. Given Jolie’s famous looks and lips, it’s remarkable how invisible she becomes in the lightly-accented, heavily hair-curled role.
Though “A Mighty Heart” is never less than utterly engrossing, Winterbottom wouldn’t be Winterbottom if he didn’t also include plenty of moral and ethical questions. After all, the heroes of this story include men like American Randall Bennett (Will Patton) and a Pakistani referred to only as “The Captain” (Irfan Khan) who, in the interest of saving a man they can only assume is being brutally tortured, resort to torturing suspects themselves to more quickly obtain information. When one lead results in a dead-end, the Captain decides to try a different tactic. “We will fight kidnappers with kidnapping,” he says.
Though both Bennett and the Captain remain nothing less than entirely supportive to and sympathetic of Mariane, they do things when she is not around that she would probably be hard-pressed to rationalize or approve of. Winterbottom who has questioned the morality of torture before in “The Road to Guantanamo” dramatizes this divide by occasionally flashing to news clips of the detainees in Gitmo and by refusing to sugar coat or shy away from the Captain’s and Bennett’s actions. Winterbottom seems to remain neutral on the issue beyond its representation, though one could argue that “A Mighty Heart”‘s inevitable conclusion is a doubly effective statement against torture of any and all kinds.
Still, this is not a story about what went wrong, or what could have been done differently. Nor is it really about the terrible effect of a tragedy, because the real-life Mariane has refused to allow herself to sink to the level of her husband’s killers, or to allow herself to become embittered by the sadness she has endured. Rather, the story’s ultimate message is one of survival and hope, and Winterbottom portrays this as he does all of “A Mighty Heart”‘s themes, simply, and effectively, and, in a strange way, beautifully.
“A Mighty Heart” opens in limited release on June 22nd (official site).