"A MIGHTY HEART" has to serve a number of masters -- the somber story surrounding the kidnapping of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, the magnetic star quality of actress Angelina Jolie, the quasi-documentary style of director Michael Winterbottom -- and it does so remarkably well.
That's a lot to juggle, but the resulting film, both moving and frighteningly real, so plays to everyone's strengths that it's clear that none of the elements would have fared as well without their connection with the other two.
The narrative of the doomed search for Pearl, for instance, taken from the bestselling book written by his widow, Mariane Pearl, could have turned maudlin and treacly in other hands. Left to another story, Winterbottom could have fallen victim to a weakness for being excessively chilly and distant, which he's displayed before. And with a different plot and director, Jolie could have ended up with an earnest but plodding film like 2003's "Beyond Borders." Instead, these various elements kept one another honest and on point just by being who and what they are.
Making "A Mighty Heart" a compelling experience is quite an accomplishment given that anyone who cares enough to see the film will know the outcome of the story. Abducted on Jan. 23, 2002, in Karachi, Pakistan, Pearl was brutally murdered by his captors, a fact revealed about a month later when a grisly video was released by the killers.
That awful denouement imparts a palpable sense of dread and dismay to a tale that, with its focus on religions, cultures and political systems in conflict, is in many ways a paradigmatic story of our times. As written by John Orloff (Emmy nominated for HBO's "Band of Brothers"), it's a narrative that maintains a keen balance between reasons for despair and causes for hope, a story for which Winterbottom was an excellent choice.
For though his directing career has taken some strange turns ("Code 46," "9 Songs"), Winterbottom's strength, witness "The Road to Guantanamo" and especially "In This World," is his ability to create a phenomenal sense of place, especially where southern Asia is concerned.
Working with his usual cinematographer, production designer, editor and costume designer (Marcel Zyskind, Mark Digby, Peter Christelis and Charlotte Walter), Winterbottom is truly expert at manufacturing reality, at making us feel that we are right there among the crowds, the chaos, the complete foreignness of a remote part of the world. Christelis' quick, decisive editing, which lets nothing linger on the screen, is especially helpful in calling up a sense of verisimilitude that is hard to shake.
Though it doesn't neglect the emotional component of the Pearls' story, "A Mighty Heart" is most accurately viewed as a kind of political film noir, a tense and elaborate police procedural investigation of both what happened to Daniel Pearl and the herculean efforts expended by Americans and Pakistanis to try to rescue him before it was too late.
Using a mixture of professional and nonprofessional actors and Winterbottom's technique of improvisation within a scripted structure, we are once again made to feel as if we are right there at the Pearls' house when key decisions are made and information disclosed.
Critical to the emotional connections "A Mighty Heart" makes is the performance of Jolie as Mariane Pearl. The Oscar-winning actress, whose significant skills have been eclipsed by her position as a tabloid favorite, puts the emphasis back where it belongs with a forceful, immediate and convincing performance.
Though a series of big close-ups often places her front and center, Jolie resists the temptation to push too hard or overplay her part. Rather she uses her charisma and skill to express not only weariness and fear but also the hard-edged fierceness and lack of patience that are crucial to seeing Mariane as a real person, not a biopic saint.
It is Mariane we hear on "A Mighty Heart's" voice-over introducing us to the Pearls' situation in early 2002. Both journalists (she works for French public radio) are in Pakistan to cover the war in Afghanistan and its aftermath. She poignantly describes Karachi as a city with "so many people, no one knows how to count them. How do you find one man among all these?"
With Mariane now nearly six months pregnant, the Pearls are a day away from leaving the country. Danny (nicely played in an abbreviated role by Dan Futterman) just has one last interview to do, with a hard-to-find man named Sheikh Gilani, a cleric with ties to militant Islamic groups. He heads off in a taxi, but he never returns.
Once what has happened to Pearl is known, a mixed group of Americans and Pakistanis comes together, not without difficulty and misunderstandings, to try to ascertain who took him and why. The ins and outs of the prolonged investigation, the sense of chaos and confusion joined with determination and hope, are the center of "A Mighty Heart's" drama.
At the heart of that quest is Mariane Pearl, someone whose refusal to give up not only on Danny's fate but also on the quest for truth and the power of communication he believed in is the film's most hopeful element. Early in "A Mighty Heart," those ideals are mocked at a dinner party as "a romantic idea of journalism," but they finally turn out to be ideas both Daniel Pearl and this committed film believe are worth making a dreadful sacrifice for.
MPAA rating: R, for language. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes. In selected theaters.