Despite its Hallmark Hall of Fame title, A Mighty Heart is a spare, unblinking look at the last days of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl through the eyes of his wife, Mariane, and those who desperately tried to find him after he was kidnapped in Karachi, Pakistan. With a subject just asking to be sensationalized, director Michael Winterbottom’s matter-of-fact documentary-style approach is not only much more effective, it’s downright commendable.
The film begins on the last day of freedom for Pearl (Dan Futterman), South Asia Bureau Chief for the Journal, as he chases an interview with a radical Muslim cleric connected to Richard Reid, the shoe bomber. It’s his last day in Karachi before he and his wife, Mariane (Angelina Jolie), who’s five months pregnant, leave for the relative comfort and safety of Dubai.
When he fails to return from the interview, however, concern rapidly escalates into fear but, somehow, never into panic. Even after the kidnappers publish their demands, the Pakistani government at first insists that it’s a plot by the Indian government to embarrass them. Eventually, they are forced to take Pearl’s abduction seriously and, assisted by an American FBI agent (Will Patton), they begin retracing the reporter’s steps before the kidnapping. Their investigation proceeds perhaps a little more rapidly than it would in our country because the Pakistani police are free to use methods of interrogation that are, shall we say, unavailable to their U.S. counterparts. Even when they reach what appears to be the heart of the conspiracy, the terrorist cell is so compartmentalized that even those in charge have no idea where Pearl is being held.
In the meantime, Mariane and a network of friends from the Wall Street Journal work their own investigation, trying to piece together possible connections between the kidnapping and stories that Pearl had been pursuing, including possible connections between Al Qaeda and Pakistani intelligence.
Despite being off-screen for long stretches of time as the movie follows the police investigation, Angelina Jolie absolutely holds this film together. What’s remarkable is how this actress, one of the most recognizable celebrities at the moment, splashed across every tabloid cover from here to Karachi, manages to utterly vanish into the character. It’s a deglamorized role, saddled as she is with a fake pregnant belly, mostly devoid of big emotional scenes. Rather than being a gauzy hagiography of Mariane Pearl, this movie simply portrays a loving wife of an equally loving husband. The Pearl marriage is happy but not idealized.
Even when Daniel’s fate is discovered, and her pent-up emotions are finally given full reign, the scene is raw and true, lacking any false histrionics. That reality makes the scene far more heartbreaking than any hyped-up Hollywood theatrics could do. I personally think Ms. Jolie should keep the last Sunday in February free. She might need to be at the Kodak Theater that evening.
The other characters around her maintain that grounded, life-sized feeling. Will Patton’s FBI agent is no Jack Bauer. The Pakistani police officers, even if we disapprove of their methods, are ultimately just guys doing their jobs as best they can. Even the kidnappers, what we see of them, are never caught twirling a single moustache. In the end, they’re only people. Okay, they’re brutal, evil people who have no problem with chopping off the head of an innocent journalist, but they are not portrayed as devils.
For refusing to sensationalize its subject matter, for doing justice to the memory of Daniel Pearl and to the efforts of everyone involved in trying to bring him home, A Mighty Heart deserves my praise and your attention.