Michael Winterbottom’s docudrama of the events surrounding the kidnapping and subsequent beheading of Wall Street journalist Daniel Pearl in A Mighty Heart is a riveting, depressing, terrifying glimpse into a world most of us would rather not think about. Pared down to the essentials, Winterbottom spends no screen time on helping us with our emotions. This isn’t a redemptive film, nor is it a cathartic one. It is based on Mariane Pearl’s memoir, and it matches her own cool remove; this is not a sentimental woman nor is it a sentimental film.
Although the hunt is on for Pearl, led by the Captain (a scene-stealing Irfan Khan) and Randall Bennett (Will Patton), we already know how he met his end so there was no point in building up suspense. In its place is a blow-by-blow rundown of just how difficult it is to fight terrorism when those terrorists believe they are doing God’s work. But it isn’t just an ideological fight, it’s a logistical one in a country where there are millions of places they could have hidden Danny Pearl.
The film stars Angelina Jolie as Danny Pearl’s wife, Mariane Pearl. The role required Jolie to perfect a difficult accent, put on brown contacts, a curly wig and a fake pregnancy pad. At times, she disappears into the role. At other times, it’s glaringly obvious that this is one of the most watched stars on the planet.
It’s almost a shame. Jolie has somehow managed, between the bouts with the paparazzi, the adoptions and her own pregnancy, to become a controlled, deliberate actress. She doesn’t wear fear on her face. But when she finally breaks down she shows us what she has been covering up. Primal, screeching, painful, almost comical – it is one of those eruptions that proves we are still animals underneath it all. It took guts to go there, no doubt. And for that, Jolie will likely be looking at an Oscar nomination.
Winterbottom has help with a fine cast, led by Jolie and her co-star Daniel Futterman, but also Archie Panjabi as Asra, Mariane’s comrade in staying in Pakistan to find Daniel. Khan is the real find, however. He easily steals the show away from his co-stars, partly with his camera-ready charisma but partly because he’s the only character in the film who seems to be driven to necessary hysteria. Everyone else is just a bit too laid back. Khan’s captain appears to be the only one who knows what it takes, how to fight fire with fire.
Jolie is the one in line to take credit, along with Pitt who is the visionary behind the project. It is something they can be proud of. Though Jolie’s press for the film has been mainly focused on her relationship with Pitt, her devotion to the project and to the man in her life was plainly obvious in the amount exposure she offered up in order to promote A Mighty Heart.
Jolie has said often that all Mariane Pearl cared about was that the film’s message was loud and clear. Nothing else mattered to her. In the film, Jolie as Mariane makes the declaration that terrorists depend on performing acts to keep us terrorized. “I am not terrorized,” she said.
Unfortunately, the film does not seem to be picking up much box office. Perhaps we’re still not ready to look at the truth of what our world has become. Why should we when it’s so much easier to follow the latest on Paris Hilton on CNN.