While working in Karachi, Pakistan, in 2002, Wall Street Journal writer Daniel Pearl (Futterman) is kidnapped. Confined to their home, his heavily pregnant wife Mariane (Jolie) waits for his release, unprepared for the horror that is about to unfold.
It’s ironic, after the success of United 93 and World Trade Center, that A Mighty Heart, starring the world-famous Angelina Jolie and based on the world-famous tragedy of Daniel Pearl, struggled to make back half its $16 million budget at the US box office.
It’s certainly a factor that the film is as uncomfortable as you’d imagine, perhaps more so than those 9/11 dramas, because of its individual focus. We know that it happened because the beheading of Daniel Pearl, targeted for unfounded CIA links and his Jewish background, was broadcast via the internet. So we know what’s coming, and no amount of bravura acting from Ms. Jolie can break that tension. And with Michael Winterbottom, director of such post-9/11 dramas as In This World and The Road To Guantanamo, behind the camera, it was never going to be The Angelina Show anyway.
But curiously, A Mighty Heart never quite gels around that one person who ought to anchor it: frequently breaking away from Mariane’s lonely compound to document the investigation into Pearl’s disappearance, Winterbottom creates a breathtaking procedural that rests largely on the passionate but ultimately impotent Pakistani police chief (a terrific performance by Irfan Khan). So while Jolie really puts some elbow grease into her performance as a vulnerable woman facing the unimaginable, her solo scenes seem out of synch, as if two parallel movies about the same subject, one personal, one political, have been interwoven.
It’s often said that Winterbottom is a cold director, and while that’s true of certain works, there’s definitely a human quality there that he simply refuses to foreground. Such subtlety is counter-productive here. Nobody expected violins, but Winterbottom underplays his heroine’s tragedy to the extent that her grace and humanism in refusing to let the West use her husband’s death for political gain doesn’t feel like the crux of the movie, but a coda. And although Jolie is note-perfect, Winterbottom’s film simply ends up as a zen rollercoaster most viewers won’t wish to take, in which a woman endures the worst cruelties mankind can offer and emerges beatific and even hopeful. We know that she did, but Winterbottom’s film doesn’t quite get around to telling the story of why.
A solid, uncomfortable account of a wifes ordeal, with a strong turn from Jolie, but strangely lacking an emotional focus.