A Mighty Heart: A review

A Mighty Heart

Dir: Michael Winterbottom

Angelina Jolie, Dan Futterman, Irfan Khan, Archie Punjabi

Karachi, January 2002. Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman) is kidnapped by unknown extremists while investigating alleged contacts between Al-Qaeda and the ISI, as well as the case of shoe bomber Richard Reid. His pregnant wife Mariane (Angelina Jolie), together with their friend and colleague Asra Nomani (Archie Punjabi), and American and Pakistani authorities, race against time to find and rescue him.

Based on the book of the same name by Mariane Pearl, widow of slain journalist Daniel Pearl, A Mighty Heart has many people in a tizzy of the negative kind. As far as I can discern there are three main interest groups of AMH naysayers. The first is the desi contingent that assumes that the film bashes Pakistan. The second is the more ethnically diverse band of Angelina haters – “Nympho! Home wrecker!” – and the third are those annoying internet cloggers who very self-righteously object to a white actress (Jolie) being cast as a ‘black’ person (Mariane Pearl). Well, let me stick my hand in the proverbial hornets’ nest and give it a good swirl by saying to all three groups: you can put it in your pipes and smoke it – I liked the film. It doesn’t badmouth the motherland, Ms. Jolie is fine by me, and Ms. Pearl is of Cuban-Dutch parentage, and the last time I checked, neither Cuba nor the Netherlands were part of the Dark Continent. Besides, I figure if the Wayans Bros. can play White Chicks, and Kevin Costner can play Robin Hood without getting anyone’s bloomers in a tangle, then pretty much anything is kosher by Hollywood.

Studiously avoiding sensationalism, director Winterbottom instead employs his trademark documentary style to tell this tale. There is very little subjective punctuation on display here, and what little there is consists of fleeting intimate moments between the Pearls, which only serve to heighten and personalize the subtly poignant tonality of the film. Marcel Zyskind’s guerilla-esque cinematography, and Peter Christelis’ choppy yet super-coherent editing complement the overall fly-on-the-wall effect, reminiscent of Paul Greengrass’ searing 2002 film Bloody Sunday, or Winterbottom’s own acclaimed 2006 docudrama The Road to Guantanamo. But I believe I know what it is that most people are dying to know.

So then, vanity project for Brad Pitt’s better half?

Hardly. Though her skills as an actor have too often been eclipsed by her status as a tabloid fixture, and as much as her (many) detractors may be loathe to admit it, Ms. Jolie certainly can act – that Oscar for Girl, Interrupted wasn’t a misprint. However, this isn’t some commanding, grandstanding star turn by a Hollywood star bullying her way into every frame. Never the sole focus of the screenplay, Jolie firmly resists the temptation to overplay and instead gives us a portrait of a woman who is at once patient yet prickly, physically fragile yet in possession of true grit. Her Mariane is almost matter-of-fact in her calm, composed determination, but you more than feel the quiet desperation simmering underneath, like a pent-up volcano. Her ‘primal scream’ moment comes like a blow to the gut. The cynics can scoff all they want – it is a moment of immense power.

Anyone who was even remotely moved by the events of Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping and eventual murder as they played out in a very public way that winter of 2002, would have an emotional investment in the film, audience very much included. Asra Nomani has openly denounced the film and one can understand her point of view. Perhaps she is much too close to the subject to be objective. Perhaps it takes distance to recognize, accept and appreciate that this is not The Daniel Pearl Story. Indeed, it isn’t even The Mariane Pearl Story. It is instead an overwhelmingly sad mystery set against the backdrop of a world in desperate times, whose tragic outcome we are already aware of. This, it turns out, is the film’s greatest strength but also at times a near albatross, making some parts of it almost unbearable to watch, knowing Pearl’s fate, knowing that all the detective work, all the effort, will come to naught.

A very significant point that the film manages to convey potently, and echoing the one made by Ms. Pearl’s book, is that Daniel Pearl wasn’t an über mensch out to play hero, but an ordinary man trying to do his job to the best of his abilities. Make no mistake, the film tells us, Pearl did not die because he did something reckless or foolish – he checked and rechecked all the required boxes. He died because there are people lurking on all sides of the divide who have absolutely no issue with taking the lives of others, and to say otherwise would be to say that it’s a car accident victim’s fault they got hurt because they should’ve known better than to be driving a car in the first place.

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