Docudramas have gotten so good at documentary things they're starting to leave the drama behind. Case in point: last year's United 93 , which put us on the 9/11 plane that was supposed to hit the U.S. Capitol or the White House but crashed in rural Pennsylvania instead. Director Paul Greengrass did such an amazing job of conveying what it must have felt like to be on somebody else's suicide mission that only later did you ask yourself whether the movie had anything else on its mind. Was it just a glorified snuff film? We certainly didn't get to know any of the victims well enough to generate any dramatic conflict. And because the outcome was never in doubt, there was no suspense, only dread. Basically, there was no way out alive.
And now here's A Mighty Heart , Michael Winterbottom's blow-by-blow account of the effort to rescue Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and beheaded by Muslim extremists, the video of his execution circulating all over the world via the Internet. Not since Abraham Zapruder unknowingly filmed President Kennedy being assassinated had a home movie caused such voyeuristic horror, but A Mighty Heart isn't about the way Pearl died. It's about the heroically futile attempt to keep him alive, and the somewhat less futile attempt to track down the men who took him hostage. The FBI, the CIA, the Pakistani intelligence service and police in Karachi were all involved, but it was Mariane Pearl, Daniel's wife, who held everything together.
Or so it would seem from the movie, which is based on Mariane Pearl's memoir. When she appeared on CNN shortly after the abduction, Mrs. Pearl must have been a great disappointment to her husband's captors. She didn't cry. She didn't beg for mercy. She didn't swear revenge. In other words, she didn't seem terrorized. And A Mighty Heart is as much about her as about anyone else, which makes the casting of Angelina Jolie both strangely appropriate and faintly ridiculous. If anybody could float above the fray, looking down with regal calm, Jolie could. But she also brings her own baggage to the role - her evolving persona as the Mother Teresa of Hollywood and Vine. A Mighty Heart is hardly a star vehicle, but there's little doubt who's behind the wheel. (Jolie's husband, Brad Pitt, produced.)
Does she give a decent performance? Yes, to the extent the movie allows her to. She's had her hair curled, her skin darkened, her eyes turned brown, and although she'd never be mistaken for the real Mariane Pearl, who combines an Afro-Cuban with a Dutch heritage, she does capture Pearl's exotic ethnic flavor, including the vaguely French accent. Jolie wisely underplays Mariane's reaction as her husband fails to return from an interview with a reclusive Muslim cleric who may have had ties to the shoe-bomber Richard Reid. And she keeps right on underplaying Mariane's reactions as, one week, two weeks, three, four, five weeks later, he still fails to return. Only when it's absolutely clear he'll never return does Jolie's Mariane let out a howl of grief, after which she regains her composure.
One might have hoped for a little more delving into the emotions of a woman who seemed to feel that, if she betrayed any, the terrorists would win. But delving into emotions isn't Winterbottom's strong suit. Laying bare a foreign landscape, with all its mysteries intact, is. As he showed in In This World and The Road to Guantánamo , Winterbottom has an uncanny ability to ground his movies in reality. In part, this can be attributed to the three most important factors in documentary-based filmmaking: locations, locations, locations. A Mighty Heart was shot mostly in India but also in the very streets from which Daniel Pearl was lured into a trap. And the sights and sounds of Karachi, one of the largest, poorest cities in the world, are about as far from Mayberry as you can imagine.
Locating Pearl within such a mountainous trash heap would have been like finding a needle in a haystack (or Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora), but A Mighty Heart nevertheless concerns itself mostly with that search. We're introduced to characters whom we don't really get to know - a diplomatic-security specialist (Will Patton), his Pakistani counterpart (Irrfan Khan), a fellow Journal reporter (Archie Punjabi), a higher-up from the Journal (Denis O'Hare). And as the investigation forges ahead, we struggle to keep up. It can be frustrating in a police procedural when the police procedures themselves leave us in the dark. Here, it makes a certain kind of sense, because we're not the only ones who don't know what's going on. Neither does the investigative team, for the most part. Leads are few and far between, suspects rarer still.
Perhaps the abductors weren't all that interested in negotiating. They did demand the release of prisoners from Guantánamo Bay, but surely they didn't expect that to happen. And although several of the participants, including the organizer, have been taken into custody, we may never know exactly what the plan or the goal was. Did they kidnap Pearl because he was an American journalist and then execute him because they subsequently found out he was a Jew? The answer is somewhere in that haystack, in the way certain straws briefly lined up, only to slide out of alignment when the shifting political climate in Pakistan shifted yet again. And that may be the movie's chief value, in the political scheme of things: showing us just how utterly complex the situation there was and is. Winterbottom has an eye for details.
And thus does he evoke Z and State of Siege , the dispassionate political thrillers that Costa-Gavras crafted back in the late '60s and early '70s. The difference is that A Mighty Heart , as its title suggests, does contain moments of passion, including via flashbacks in which Dan Futterman shows us what a fun-loving, wife-adoring, hard-working, life-affirming man Daniel Pearl was. Mariane was supposed to go with him that day, and you want to shout at the screen as he wanders farther and farther away from home, aware of the danger he might be in but filled with a journalist's need to understand what's going on. The movie mercifully spares us his final moments, and what it finally adds up to, I think, is a tribute to those who tried to save his life even after it had been taken from him.