A Blow to the Heart
Friday, June 22, 2007
A mournful sense of inevitability pervades "A Mighty Heart," in which Angelina Jolie stars as Mariane Pearl, whose husband, Daniel, a Wall Street Journal reporter, was kidnapped and beheaded in Pakistan while his wife and a team of colleagues and investigators frantically tried to find him. The movie, an adaptation of Mariane Pearl's memoir and directed by Michael Winterbottom, brings those dreadful weeks back with brutally vivid detail as a taut, meticulously crafted police procedural. Part thriller, part melodrama, "A Mighty Heart" recalls last year's "United 93" -- in its technical prowess and artistry but also in its harrowing emotional arc, one that clearly aims to inspire viewers, though it may just as likely leave them feeling utterly wrung out.
Welcome to the new Cinema of Compulsive Reenactment, wherein excruciatingly painful recent events are rushed to the screen with breathless, almost fetishistic detail, and whose precise aims are subject to interpretation. Is this instant mythologizing a form of catharsis? Closure? Rank exploitation? Or a particularly American, impatient brand of revisionism, designed to create an immediately usable past?
These are the philosophical questions that haunt "A Mighty Heart," and it answers with a degree of subtlety and sophistication that skeptics might find surprising. The film begins on Jan. 23, 2002, the day Danny was taken hostage and a day like any other for the Pearls, both working as journalists in Karachi. (He's played in the film by Dan Futterman.) Danny is tracking down a lead to a possible connection between al-Qaeda and Richard Reid, the British "shoe bomber"; Mariane, a freelance journalist and six months pregnant, does some interviews, goes shopping for that night's dinner and checks at regular intervals with Danny by cellphone.
By dinnertime, when he hasn't come home, the first clouds of apprehension begin to gather. Awareness dawns slowly, then with a terrible, crushing certitude as Danny doesn't pick up and Mariane makes the first call to the U.S. Embassy. Soon the house the Pearls have been sharing with fellow journalist Asra Nomani (Archie Panjabi), is filled with American diplomats, Karachi police and eventually the FBI, portrayed in one of the film's few comic flourishes by an amusingly no-nonsense female agent played by Jillian Armenante.
Winterbottom, like his countryman Paul Greengrass (who directed "United 93"), has been experimenting with realism to terrific effect in recent years, with films such as "Welcome to Sarajevo," "In This World" and "The Road to Guantanamo." In "A Mighty Heart," he brings all his talents to bear on a vivid, densely layered portrait, not just of one woman but of a city. With handheld cameras and a fearless sense of urgency and spontaneity, he plunges viewers into the neon-lit thrum and impossible beauty of Karachi (where some scenes were filmed), conveying not only its fascination for foreign correspondents like the Pearls but also the daunting, needle-in-a-haystack task of finding Danny in all that teeming humanity. Even amid the polyglot cacophony and chaos, "A Mighty Heart" skillfully threads viewers through a complicated skein of players, political agendas and dead ends in an investigation that ranges from al-Qaeda to Mossad to Pakistan's political opponents in India.
Quite wisely, Winterbottom doesn't get too caught up in the ticktock of Danny's fatal journey, instead using brief flashbacks to speculate on how his abduction occurred. "A Mighty Heart" instead focuses on Mariane, played by Jolie in brown contact lenses and a diadem of black curls to resemble Mariane, who like Joan Didion in "The Year of Magical Thinking" reacts like any good journalist would to being ambushed by personal horror: She keeps her head, assumes control and takes notes. Like Didion, she's one cool customer.
Jolie is a star of such super-stratospheric proportions that the chances of her disappearing into a character role would seem slim at best. But it turns out that she is the perfect choice to play Mariane, not only because she delivers a restrained, understated performance but because her persona as a citizen of the world -- as a U.N. representative, activist and mother -- so seamlessly meshes with the global consciousness that the Pearls represent. She blends just as seamlessly with "A Mighty Heart's" fine ensemble of supporting actors, including Panjabi and Will Patton as U.S. consul Randall Bennett.(Mariane's quietly appalled gaze as Bennett extols the virtues of Pakistan's notorious interrogation methods is a moment of physical eloquence typical of Jolie's astute, vanity-free performance.)
Mariane and Danny emerge in the film as two people at home no matter where they are on the planet, plunging headlong into the countries they're covering. They're not adrenalin junkies, as so many foreign correspondents are characterized, but connection junkies, reveling in vagrant moments of mutual comprehension. Of course, it was precisely comprehension that failed when Danny was murdered for being an American, a journalist and a Jew -- a blow to his own ideals that makes the film's agonizing denouement all the more shattering.
But Mariane refuses to put her husband's murder in a context of American exceptionalism or even personal outrage; during one of her first television appearances, she notes that during Danny's captivity several Pakistanis were victims of terror. One gets the idea that for Mariane, her fiercely held humanism isn't a matter of sentiment but rather seasoned practicality: It's about accuracy.
A central, even existential contradiction vexes "A Mighty Heart," which is that one can deeply admire it as a piece of filmmaking and still harbor misgivings about why we need to have these stories packaged for the big screen. If that bigger question will never be easily resolved, "A Mighty Heart" still avoids its genre's twin pitfalls of gratuitous masochism and cheap sentiment. "United 93," for all its rigorous refusal to engage in reassuring theatrics, never quite transcended the former; as for "World Trade Center," which also focused on the events of Sept. 11, 2001, its eagerness to impose redemptive meaning on that day resulted in a surfeit of the latter.
"A Mighty Heart" threads this needle with sober assurance, offering a clear-eyed retelling of Danny Pearl's murder but finally, in focusing on Mariane's response, delivering an affecting and, yes, redemptive lesson in moral comportment. Faced with unspeakable grief, Mariane doesn't give in to xenophobia or selective indignation, but with her best self turns her loss into a plea for the cosmopolitanism she and her husband personified.
One can only hope that the nuance with which the filmmakers make this point won't be lost on audiences more accustomed to the rhetoric -- political and cinematic -- of retribution. Ultimately, "A Mighty Heart" is an epic romance, at once doomed and full of hope, about two people in love with the world, even when it didn't love them back.
A Mighty Heart (100 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity.