A Mighty Heart

| June 25, 2007

A Mighty Heart is framed by a voiceover from the film’s emotional core, Marianne Pearl (played by Angelina Jolie). In the opening segment, over brief titles and quick establishing shots, her words set the stage for the narrative to follow. She and her husband Daniel Pearl (played by Dan Futterman) are in Karachi, Pakistan, seeking an elusive source for an article that Daniel is writing for his paper, The Wall Street Journal. Against shots of the teeming, chaotic bustle of the city, the closing line of the opening voiceover is spoken: “How do you find one person against all of this?”
Those words serve as a kind of thesis statement for this sharp, deeply affecting emotional essay of a film from director Michael Winterbottom (Welcome to Sarajevo). In the larger context of the story, and through the wrenching search for Daniel Pearl after he is kidnapped, those words deepen greatly in meaning. The rhetorical question they ask becomes: “How do you find one soul against such a vicious ideological conflict?” It’s a question Winterbottom doesn’t want to answer so much as he wants you to know the frustration in asking it. In that he succeeds without a doubt.
Much has been made of the close proximity between the real events of stories like A Mighty Heart, or United 93 and World Trade Center, and their narrative counterparts. Some feel that it’s too soon to be creating what is essentially entertainment–albeit thought-provoking–from tragedies still prevalent in the cultural consciousness. To that end, many raise questions about the presence of an actress with the star caliber of Angelina Jolie in a film with such emotional and political concerns. Does her presence dilute the context of the story? Does her celebrity draw attention away from the reality of the events portrayed? There are endless debates in these questions. Arguments that ultimately belittle the accomplishments of director Michael Winterbottom, Angelina Jolie and the other fine actors in A Mighty Heart. They create together a deft piece of cinema that is true to the events that it draws from, while never overpowering those events emotionally or politically.
Stylistically, A Mighty Heart most resembles Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo and The Road to Guantanamo. In A Mighty Heart, he constructs a fast-paced docudrama that’s equal parts character study and police procedural. The tempo is quick and lean–shots whiz by in the early going and brief titles appear to orient you from time to time, but that’s it–not much is explained or set up outside the opening voiceover. In the end, the story feels more captured than constructed, though by no means is it raw. There’s a definite sense of polish and pace as the story hurtles to its bracing emotional climax.
Overall the police procedural elements give the film its most obvious electricity. They highlight the unsung hero of the picture, the fabulous performance of the great Indian actor Irfan Khan (The Namesake) as The Captain, the chief of Pakistan’s counterterrorism unit. For The Captain, the need to find Daniel Pearl, and return him safely, becomes an emotional mirror to Marriane Pearl’s need to find her husband. Where Marianne’s is a deeply personal need, The Captain’s is a political one that’s felt as personally and intimately as Marriane’s. He searches to save his country’s reputation, and yet, at every turn, he’s betrayed by that same country’s ideological schism. Khan plays this with a bristling mix of compassion and tenacity that allows the political aspect of the story to enter into the proceedings without overbearing the human tragedy of it.
Of course, there is Ms. Jolie’s performance as Marianne Pearl. As mentioned above, Marianne Pearl is–without a doubt–the emotional core of the film. It’s her memoir of the events, written with Sarah Crichton, that serves as the source material for the film. Ms. Jolie illuminates the personal nature of Marianne Pearl’s experience with a natural grace and unfettered poise that should serve as a quick reminder of her talents as an actress. The scene where she finally receives word of the fate of Daniel Pearl is, for me, one of the most honest and painful portrayals of grief ever captured in a film.
A Mighty Heart achieves many things. It’s faithful to the events that inspire the story. It features wonderful performances. The story is taut and engaging. Yet, the one thing I feel the film achieves most of all is that it elicits an honest emotional response. Though I knew the story, and its outcome, I felt through the latter half of the film completely immersed in the struggle to find Daniel Pearl–hoping against hope that they would find him in time. When Marianne reacts to word of Daniel’s fate, I was surprised at how deeply I felt the moment with her. In the end, it’s the greatest achievement, for me, of A Mighty Heart. It not only captures the events surrounding Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping and subsequent death, but also the emotions that coursed through those events. It’s those very emotions that lend the frustration to the rhetorical question poised at the start of the film: “How do you find one person against all of this?”

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