A Mighty Heart is a movie that combines three elements that do not fit together naturally. Its source material is the memoir of Mariane Pearl about her husband’s kidnapping and subsequent murder in Karachi. Its star is the undeniably talented, but much exposed, very recognisable mega-star, Angelina Jolie. Its director is the stylish and unconventional British film-maker Michael Winterbottom (Welcome to Sarajevo, Code 46, The Road to Guantanamo). But these disparate elements fit together remarkably well, and result in a taut and edgy thriller.
In early 2002, Daniel Pearl, an American Jew and the South Asia bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal was working in the congested, sprawling city of Karachi. His research into the shoe-bomber, Richard Reid, led him to seek out an interview with a mysterious figure named Shiekh Gilani. He ended up in the hands of jihadists. This prompted a desperate search for him by his wife and Pakistani and American officials. Most of the world remembers Mr Pearl’s fate –he was beheaded and the video was posted on the internet. This takes some of the suspense out of the film. It therefore focuses on Mariane’s side of the story, capturing her mounting fretfulness as the search becomes more and more frantic. Also a journalist, six months pregnant, and very much in love with her husband, Mariane sees her world collapsing.
All of the investigators have reasons to secure Daniel’s safe return. The sole job of Randall Bennett, played by Will Patton (Remember the Titans), the regional security officer at the US consulate in Karachi, is to protect Americans. Bennett met Pearl just before his disappearance because the journalist sought his advice about the secretive interview. He warned caution but eventually gave it a green light. He feels partly responsible. “Captain”, the head of the state police in Karachi and a devout Muslim, played with ample feeling by Irfan Khan (The Namesake), knows that a bloody incident will reflect badly upon Pakistan. John Bussey (Denis O’Hare), a higher-up from the Wall Street Journal, realises that a tragedy will besmirch the image of his newspaper. Foremost in all their minds, however, is concern for the distraught Mariane.
In the lead role, Angelina Jolie, donning black contact lenses, a dark brown curly wig, and skin-darkening make-up, delivers a sound and delicate performance. With the help of these props and employing a believable accent, Jolie efficiently disappears into the role. Her familiarity as a movie star only emerges once or twice, enhancing the impact of her single outburst. This performance contains more depth and subtlety than her Oscar winning turn in Girl, Interrupted.
A minor controversy has arisen over the casting of Jolie in this role, mainly by pop culture critic Orville Lloyd Douglas. He claimed that Jolie was giving a performance in “black-face” and called it another example of Hollywood’s reluctance to give positive roles to black actresses. This is not entirely fair. Make-up was used to make the actress look like the real Mariane — more a matter of skin tone than of race. This is not Birth of a Nation or Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The real-life Mariane Pearl is one half Dutch-Jewish, one-quarter Afro-Cuban, and one-quarter Chinese. This begs the question, “How low a percentage of colour is required before Hollywood can cast a white actor in good conscience?” But I digress.
The supporting cast turns in respectable work as well. Archie Punjabi (Bend It Like Beckham) contributes superbly as Mariane’s long-time friend, Indian-born Asra Namani. Dan Futterman is also effective in the small but crucial role of Daniel Pearl. Futterman, who looks remarkably like Pearl, is also a writer (he wrote the screenplay to 2005’s Capote) and this adds a measure of believability to his effort.
Winterbottom utilises his typical documentary style, often with jittery cinematography. This keeps the film from becoming too sentimental or pathetic. Throughout, Winterbottom cuts very quickly and rarely does a shot last more than a few seconds, heightening the tension from beginning to end. A fictional story may have called for some comic relief, or at least a subplot, to relieve the tension. Mariane Pearl, however, had no such respite. She knew all too well that as each day passed, it became more likely that her husband would die.
Winterbottom has maintained his trademark realism. He filmed almost entirely on location in Karachi, Islamabad, and India. He encouraged his actors, who wore radio microphones, to walk the crowded streets. Automobiles are locked in futile immobility; thousands of people swarm this way and that, literally stepping over one another. How is anyone, victim or suspect, to be found in such a city?
Of course, Daniel Pearl was not found. The terrorists murdered him and sadistically sent a videotape of the murder to the officials. Mrs Pearl, understandably, elected not to watch the videotape, and the film spares the audience the gruesome details. In fact, the movie is notably sparse on violence, considering the horrible events upon which it was based.
A Mighty Heart is not about man’s capacity for evil, but about inner strength in the face of tragedy. Afterwards Mariane Pearl did not retreat into bitterness. Her memoir, and now this movie, were conceived, not as a call for retribution, but as a plea for greater understanding through dialogue and responsible journalism. Her strength is epitomised in a scene after Daniel has been murdered. Even though they had failed, Mariane addresses all the officials who had tried to help her: “The kidnappers, their point is to terrorise people. I am not terrorised… and you can’t be terrorised. I am very grateful to all of you… so thank you.”
Justin Myers is a film reviewer and teacher of Latin and Greek in the Washington DC area.