There are a few tactics a filmmaker can use when making a movie whose ending the audience already knows. He can add a fictional element to create suspense, as in “Titanic.” He can emphasize the tension among the central characters, as in “Apollo 13.” Or he can do neither.
Michael Winterbottom takes the last path with “A Mighty Heart,” the story of Daniel Pearl, the American journalist who was beheaded by terrorists in 2002. The director makes no attempt to manufacture false suspense over Daniel’s fate: Daniel is kidnapped, and we know we’ll never see him alive again. But the characters in the movie don’t know that, and that’s why the film works. Winterbottom records it in docudrama fashion, completely unromanticized or Hollywoodized, and while the film conveys a certain grim resignation to the inevitable conclusion, the characters do not. They remain hopeful. And seeing someone remain vigilant when we know they have no reason to be is both heartbreaking and strangely inspiring.
Angelina Jolie — who is an actress, too, remember? — gives what is probably the best performance of her career as Mariane Pearl, Daniel’s French-Cuban wife and fellow journalist. The two are in Karachi, Pakistan, in the months following 9/11, reporting for the Wall Street Journal on the volatile events that have so recently changed the world. Daniel (Dan Futterman) is scheduled to interview a jihadist named Sheikh Gilani, and the advice he keeps getting from everyone is: meet in public. When he doesn’t return from the interview, Mariane gets worried.
It isn’t long before everyone else is worried, too. The U.S. embassy and the local police respond quickly, well aware that when a Jewish American reporter has failed to return on time from a meeting with a Muslim terrorist, it is probably due to more than just being caught in traffic or having stopped at the grocery store.
Based on Mariane Pearl’s memoirs, the movie documents the rushed but methodical efforts made by investigators to find Daniel. Every lead is followed, with Mariane making elaborate flow charts on a whiteboard to keep track of everyone. Daniel is publicly accused by one group of working for Israel’s Mossad (not true), by another group of working for America’s CIA (also not true). The terrorist cell that finally claims responsibility for the kidnapping demands better treatment for prisoners in Guantanamo in exchange for Daniel’s safe return. We know how far that negotiation went. (It’s a nice twist to learn that the man believed responsible for Daniel’s actual execution is now in Guantanamo himself, no doubt wishing his demands for better conditions there had been heeded.)
Mariane is painted as a noble, rational figure, with malice toward no one. Her husband was murdered by terrorists — but so were half a dozen other people in Pakistan the same day. “Their point is to terrorize people,” she tells an interviewer. “I am not terrorized.”
You can attribute the saintly portrayal of Mariane to the film being based on Mariane’s own memoirs, I suppose, but let’s not be cynical. Jolie doesn’t make her superhuman — she still breaks down in a most heart-rending manner when the bad news finally comes. The point is that there is enough hate in the world already without Mariane Pearl allowing herself to be consumed by it in response to her husband’s murder. Her composure in the face of such tragedy is truly uplifting.
However, this is what they call a vegetable movie: You watch it because it’s good for you, not because it’s tasty. Winterbottom’s technique and Jolie’s performance are both top-notch, but they’re not so magnificently artistic that the film warrants repeat viewings. It warrants a single viewing, though, and it works very well on its own terms as an examination of hope in our increasingly frightening world.
B (1 hr., 40 min.; )