A MIGHTY HEART directed by Michael Winterbottom, written by John Orloff from Mariane Pearl's memoir, with Angelina Jolie, Dan Futterman, Archie Panjabi, Irfan Khan and Denis O'Hare. 100 minutes. A Paramount Vantage release. Opens Friday (June 22). Rating: NNNN
A film optioned and produced by Brad Pitt, starring Angelina Jolie as one of the world's most famous war-on-terror widows, might seem like a vanity project. A film in which Pakistani police hang their fellow citizens by their wrists during interrogation might seem dangerous in the current global climate.
But A Mighty Heart, while imperfect, is neither of these things. It's a visually arresting, narratively gripping picture containing many shades of grey.
In January 2002, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl (Capote screenwriter Dan Futterman) sets out to interview an alleged terrorist leader in Karachi, Pakistan, and doesn't return.
Jolie stars as Pearl's wife, Mariane, who, along with his translator Asra (Bend It Like Beckham's Archie Panjabi), various colleagues and the Journal, the FBI and several levels of Pakistani law enforcement, works to discover the identities of his kidnappers.
The first three-quarters of the film is paced like a thriller. If you know what happened to Pearl, you won't be any less anxious watching the plot put into motion, or following the investigators as they unravel it.
Most of the scenes set in Pakistan were filmed there, often using untrained actors. Images of cars inching through dark streets, decrepit buildings and overflowing public spaces, feel nightmarishly authentic. Director Michael Winterbottom's use of mostly handheld camera and natural light augments the documentary feel.
Also adding to the feeling of authenticity is the fact that almost no one comes off as either completely good or completely bad. The presence and efficiency of U.S. law enforcement are a huge comfort to Mariane, but the Americans can be abrupt and rude, and some even express glee at the idea of torturing criminals.
The head of Pakistan's counter-terrorism unit, known as Captain (Indian star Irfan Khan, in a breathtakingly intense performance), does torture criminals, but he also treats Mariane with compassion, works willingly with the Americans and doesn't balk when he learns Pearl is Jewish.
In fact, the only people who come off as black-and-white are the kidnappers and the victim. While it's to be expected that Mariane Pearl would focus only on her husband's good qualities, casting him as an angel of light, shown mostly in flashback, gives Futterman little to do.
As for la belle Jolie, this is one of her better performances. The moment of revelation isn't handled particularly well, but Jolie is gut-wrenching, evoking Mariane's raw despair as her strong front collapses along with her world.
The transition from thriller to preachy message movie in the film's dying moments is jarring, but sacrificing their art to remain faithful to Mariane Pearl's voice can be considered the filmmakers' own tribute to the Pearls.