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A Mighty Heart

Poignant, Heartbreaking Docudrama

Directed by Michael Winterbottom (Tristram Shandy, The Road to Guantanamo, 9 Songs) and adapted by John Orloff, A Mighty Heart methodically chronicles the desperate, eventually futile, search for Daniel Pearl, an investigative journalist for the Wall Street Journal who was kidnapped by a militant group in Karachi, Pakistan on January 23, 2002. On February 1st, the militants executed Pearl, his death videotaped and distributed to Pakistani and American officials more than a week later.

Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman), investigating the ties between shoe bomber Richard Reid, Al Qaeda and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), sets up a meeting with a radical Muslim cleric, Sheikh Gilani (Ikram Bhatti). After saying good-bye to Mariane (Angelina Jolie), a fellow journalist and five months pregnant with their first child, Pearl leaves for his rendezvous with Gilani. When Pearl doesn’t return, Mariane contacts the American embassy in Pakistan. The embassy sends an American diplomat, Randall Bennett (Will Patton), to help Mariane and act as a liaison with the ISI. In turn, the ISI sends Captain (Irfan Khan) to lead the investigation.

Based on Mariane Pearl’s memoirs, A Mighty Heart follows the various steps investigators, often with Mariane’s help and guidance, take to find Daniel Pearl and his kidnappers, all the while focusing on Mariane’s wrenching emotional journey. The film gives insight into Mariane and Daniel’s relationship, e.g., their first meeting, marriage, the impending birth of their son while briefly touching on Pakistani-Indian relations. A Mighty Heart, however, leaves more complex issues in the background, but openly acknowledges the connection between poverty (or “misery” as Mariane calls it in the film), extremist ideology, and terrorism conducted by militant groups.

For what’s essentially a docudrama, director Michael Winterbottom goes where many filmmakers working in the genre have gone before, relying on jittery, handheld cameras and high-definition video to convey a sense of realism and verisimilitude. Used with restraint, handheld camerawork can connect moviegoers to the history depicted onscreen, but overused, handheld camerawork can have a deleterious effect on moviegoers who want minimal distractions when following characters and the world they inhabit onscreen. As off-putting as Winterbottom’s filmmaking choices may be, however, they’re not enough to derail A Mighty Heart from being a heartbreaking, moving tragedy that resonates with contemporary relevance.

Filmmaking style aside, A Mighty Heart becomes compelling when Angelina Jolie is onscreen. While Jolie doesn’t share Mariane’s multi-racial background (a reason, some have suggested, that should have disqualified Jolie from taking the role), the makeup, hair, and contact lenses Jolie wears are never a distraction. Both a talented actress and a movie star, Jolie is, unsurprisingly, never less than riveting when she’s onscreen, giving what may be the most nuanced, unaffected performance of her career. It wouldn’t be surprising if, come next spring, Jolie is accepting her second Academy Award (she won her first for Girl, Interrupted). Jolie’s really that good. And with A Mighty Heart, Jolie has the subject matter and character to match her talent (usually a winning combination at Oscar time).

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars