Since it’s his third docudrama set partially in Pakistan, A Mighty Heart could be taken as evidence that Michael Winterbottom has lost his aversion to doing the same thing more than once. Yet the film is something entirely new for the British director: a star vehicle. The film’s locale echoes Winterbottom’s In This World and The Road to Guantánamo, but it’s also a companion piece to Beyond Borders, the 2003 refugee-camp melodrama that launched Angelina Jolie’s career as a cause celebrity.
Jolie plays Mariane Pearl, whose husband, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, was murdered while on assignment in Karachi in 2002. Jolie and her boyfriend, Brad Pitt (who co-produced the film), were shrewd to hire Winterbottom: Although this is his most conventional film, it’s a lot smarter and edgier than Beyond Borders. The action revolves around Jolie’s Mariane, but the movie is basically a police procedural. Shot in hand-held high-def video by Winterbottom regular Marcel Zyskind, and shredded into quick takes by editor Peter Christelis, A Mighty Heart zips through Karachi with a palpable sense of necessity. Mariane—five months pregnant when her husband vanishes in January 2002—does a little detective work, but she mostly stays home and waits for the Pakistani police officer known simply as the Captain (The Namesake’s Irrfan Khan) to find Danny or his alleged killer. When he does the latter, the man is sent to Guantánamo—the setting of Winterbottom’s previous film.
Scripted by John Orloff and based on Mariane Pearl’s memoir of the same title, A Mighty Heart is considerably less affronted by torture than The Road to Guantánamo. The Captain and his cohorts are brutal, as are the men they’re tracking, yet Mariane and her cosmopolitan friends—including Indian Muslim Journal reporter Asra Nomani (Archie Panjabi)—are concerned only with Danny’s rescue. The world the film depicts is complex and hectic, but its politics are simple: Bring him back alive.
That didn’t happen, of course, and the horror of Danny Pearl’s death is handled with discretion. He was decapitated while a video camera chronicled the slaying, but Winterbottom doesn’t simulate the event, or make the cheap substitution of showing an animal sacrifice—the film depicts the reaction to the video rather than the thing itself. Indeed, one of the movie’s implicit themes is the impossibility of showing certain things. Many of the details of Pearl’s abduction will never be established, and so the camera keeps its distance. The kidnapped reporter (played by Capote screenwriter Dan Futterman) makes a few brief appearances, but the script doesn’t conjecture about what can’t be known. Shot partially in Pakistan, although mostly in India to protect Jolie, A Mighty Heart prefers actuality to certainty.
That puts a significant burden on the star, who is made up and coiffed to resemble more closely the biracial Mariane, and who emulates her character’s complex Franco-Cuban-Dutch accent. Jolie does a credible job, but it can’t be said that she vanishes into the role; she’s just too recognizable for that. In addition, her celebrity accentuates Mariane Pearl’s different sort of renown. Pearl’s widow is a suitably multicultural character for a film about bloody culture clash, and Winterbottom deftly uses her worldliness to comment on the story’s monomaniacal zealots. He flashes back to the Pearls’ Jewish-Buddhist wedding and cuts from Muslims in group prayer to Mariane’s solitary Buddhist chant. Yet it’s unclear what Mariane’s polyglot life, or her horrible loss, has to say about the war between militant Islam and the West. The protagonist of A Mighty Heart emerges as both likable and admirable—but not especially pertinent to the conflict her husband died trying to document.