Based on a true story about the 2002 capture and ultimate beheading of respected Wall Street Journal
journalist Daniel Pearl at the hands of a Pakistani militant group, "A Mighty Heart" is a gritty docudrama-cum-procedural that fails to enlighten the viewer about who this man was or the tragic situation he found himself in beyond what has already been established by the media. As one might guess by an adaptation of the book, "A Mighty Heart: The Brave Life and Death of My Husband, Daniel Pearl," the film is mostly told from the point of view of his French-Cuban wife Mariane, also a journalist and five months pregnant at the time of his kidnapping. As she consults with friends, government officials and the police in a desperate attempt to find her spouse and bring him to safety, the clock timer on Daniel's life shortens with each passing day. Of course, audiences going to see "A Mighty Heart" will already know the outcome, so director Michael Winterbottom's (2006's "The Road to Guantanamo") biggest challenge is in unfolding the inevitable in a fresh and insightful way. Though his earnestness toward the project is apparent, he is unable to succeed at this.
One of the nagging problems with "A Mighty Heart" is that the film is set up almost as a thriller. Instead of developing Mariane and Daniel as both complicated individuals and a loving couple, screenwriter John Orloff seems more interested in drawing tension out of whether or not Daniel's life will be salvaged out of the ordeal. In 2006's "United 93
," a similarly staged but far more impactful motion picture, the depictions of 9/11 and the events onboard the doomed airliner shed new light on that fateful day through its powerful portrayal of human nature at its most resilient, vulnerable and ultimately brave. "A Mighty Heart" holds no such scrutiny; the plot goes from point-A to point-B in an unextraordinary fashion and then just ends.
Worth commending despite the deficiencies of the script is Angelina Jolie (2005's "Mr. and Mrs. Smith
"), a powerhouse as Mariane Pearl. It takes all of about five minutes for Jolie to disappear into her role; once the baggage that goes along with this iconographic celebrity goes away, the viewer becomes mesmerized by the way she so completely embodies the real-life character she is playing. Jolie blesses Mariane with forthright drive, intelligence, fairness, and a whole lot of raw emotions, and the centerpiece sceneher reaction to discovering Daniel has been confirmed deadis acted out in such an exposing and honest way that it sends chills over the viewer. At the same time, this sequence further relays why the movie doesn't work: we watch Mariane and care about her in that moment, but we also stand at a distance from her, wishing we got to know her better.
As Daniel Pearl, Dan Futterman (2002's "Enough
") does all that he can to bring layers and gravitas
to the role, but the material lets him down. Primarily glimpsed in flashbacks that usually last only fifteen to thirty seconds apiece, simply not enough substantial time is spent getting to know him, his work, and his beliefs. The scenes between Daniel and Mariane, which could have gone a long way in really deepening their relationship, are superficial in nature and hardly skim the surface of what it is like for two people to truly and unequivocally be in love. A wordless snapshot of their wedding and a handful of spoken sweet nothings on a boat don't cut it.
The rest of the performances, including Archie Panjabi (2006's "A Good Year
"), as the Pearls' empathetic journalist friend Asra, and Denis O'Hare (2007's "Stephanie Daley
"), as another newspaper confidante who helps out in the investigation, are fine but thankless. So one-dimensional are some of the supporting characters that when the conclusion's postscript mentions what happened to them, one is at a loss to remember who they were in the film.
Shot with handheld cameras by cinematographer Marcel Zyskind in a you-are-there, cinéma vérité
style, the look and feel of the film holds a certain jittery immediacy that grabs attention. As the second hour presses forward and the action continues to revolve around people discussing and throwing ideas around on how to get Daniel back safely, the experience grows monotonous. The film spins its wheels as director Michael Winterbottom loses sight of the human element in exchange for a stab at mounting tension that simply isn't there. The viewer feels like yelling at the people on the screen to get on with it, or at least for Winterbottom to show us something perceptive or eye-opening about the case. At the end of the day, Daniel Pearl lost his life in his valiant and admirable pursuit of the truth, never backing down on the values he believed in. It's an awful yet inspiring story. As generically presented in "A Mighty Heart," however, it never rises above the level of a made-for-television movie.