A Mighty Heart
directed by Michael Winterbottom
(Paramount, 2007)

In his last film, The Road to Guantanamo, director Michael Winterbottom told the story of a trio of British Muslims who were carted off from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay and held for two years until being released without charge.

This time around, in A Mighty Heart, he takes us in the opposite direction, following the trail of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman) and his wife, Mariane (Angelina Jolie), also a reporter, as they make their way to Afghanistan in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and the U.S. response and then proceed to Pakistan for -- Pearl tells his wife -- "one last interview."

As indeed it was. Pearl never returned from that interview: he was kidnapped by a group of terrorists who said they were calling for the better treatment of prisoners in -- where else? -- Guantanamo Bay and eventually was beheaded.

Most people who follow the news are familiar with that much of the case. But Winterbottom, working from Mariane Pearl's book about the kidnapping, tells us many sides of the story of which we were not aware.

First he sets up in detail the facts surrounding the "one last interview" Pearl set out on: how he was unable to get a car and was forced to use a taxi; how he was advised, numerous times, to meet with his subject only in public; and how his failure to return that evening quickly set off an investigation that turned into a nationwide -- make that international -- search.

Winterbottom details that search, which involved not only Pearl's family and friends and the local police, but the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. consulate, the Pakistani secret service and every phone company and Internet-firm operative the Pakistani police could lay their hands on. And what he achieves is a film of incredible suspense -- no mean accomplishment given that we know how it all ends long before the opening titles flash onto the screen.

One reason Winterbottom succeeds is that he takes special care to lay out the landscape. In his location filming in and around Islamabad, Karachi and Mumbai, he details an anarchistic landscape in which it's easy for outsiders -- especially Westerners, especially during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan -- to feel very much at risk.

On top of this, he uses numerous quick flashbacks to establish both the closeness of Daniel and Mariane Pearl and the one fact that puts Daniel at special risk: he's Jewish.

The tension continues to rise as the police, secret and otherwise, start to make progress on the case: we see how the secretive network Daniel used to find sources for his stories could be turned quickly against him. It's a world where no one trusts anyone: some suspect Daniel is working for the CIA; others think he's an agent for Mossad. And it's not long before it's hard to know what to think about anyone and everyone.

"We will fight kidnappers with kidnapping," a secret police officer announces as the roundup of suspects proceeds.

But A Mighty Heart is more than a powerful true story -- it's a powerful true story well told. Winterbottom wastes no time getting to the meat of the action. Most of what we know about the Pearls -- individually and together -- comes from the flashbacks, most of which take place in the tense moments when Mariane is trying in vain to sleep. As a result, he moves the story ahead even as he looks back.

He also captures the omnipresent overbearingness of the local reporters, who lay siege to the home of Asra Nomani (Archie Panjabi), the Pearls' friend, colleague and provider of bed and board in Karachi. The result is yet another irony: journalists being tormented by the media.

Just as importantly, Jolie the celebrity disappears from view and Jolie the actress -- remember Girl Interrupted? -- triumphs as Mariane. She is riveting, intense and totally in character from her first scene with Futterman until she offers the film's final words on the best way to battle terrorists: "Wherever there is misery, they find people," Mariane tells a TV interviewer.

A Mighty Heart is a film that can make you believe in the power of individuals, even when they seem to be at their most powerless. Mighty indeed.

review by
Miles O'Dometer

28 March 2009

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