The heart referred to in the title of Mariane Pearl’s book, A Mighty Heart, was that of her husband, Daniel, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and executed by Islamic militants in Pakistan in 2002. But the eponymous organ in the movie A Mighty Heart, Michael Winterbottom’s brusque, economical account of the days after the abduction, belongs to Mariane herself. Though Danny (Dan Futterman) appears in brief, mainly silent flashbacks throughout the film, we see nothing of his time in captivity. This is not a movie about being kidnapped, but about searching frantically for your missing mate—and the audience, armed with the sickening knowledge that Pearl will be decapitated on video five weeks after his disappearance, can only sit and watch with steadily mounting dread.
Of course, the film’s focus shifts from Daniel to Mariane Pearl for another reason as well: Mariane is played by Angelina Jolie, an actress whose global recognizability quotient is exceeded only by that of the sun. Jolie is, by any reasonable standard, very good in the role: Her French-Cuban accent is impeccable, her emotional weather precisely mapped, her subtly darkened skin and corkscrew wig convincing. Unfortunately, though, reasonable standards don’t apply to Angelina Jolie. This is one of those roles where casting can’t help but trump acting. Like Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, Angelina Jolie IS Mariane Pearl—and that marquee-size “is” gets in the way, not of her performance, but of our ability to suspend disbelief and watch it.
For the first half-hour, A Mighty Heart is, in essence, a movie about a pregnant lady on the telephone. The increasingly desperate Mariane dials to track down the contact who set up an interview between Danny and a suspected terrorist named Sheikh Gilani. As empty leads pile up and days drag on, the posh Karachi compound of Danny and Mariane’s friend, journalist Asra Nomani (Archie Panjabi) becomes an unofficial command center for the search. Mariane and Asra are joined by two of Danny’s colleagues at the Journal, his editor John Bussey (Denis O’Hare) and a reporter, Steve LeVine (Garry Wilmes).
Then, when the case is taken over by a local counterterrorism unit led by a cool customer known only as the Captain (a magisterial Irrfan Khan), the film becomes a tense police thriller. Red herrings and false alarms appear so quickly, you can barely keep track of the names of terror suspects as Asra and Mariane scribble them on a whiteboard. An envoy from the American Embassy, Randall Bennett (Will Patton), joins forces with the Captain to comb the streets of Karachi, exhilarated by the Pakistani cops’ devil-may-care approach to human rights: “I love this city!” he crows, as they prepare to raid a civilian dwelling sans warrant.
It’s hard to know what to make of this film’s ambivalent treatment of torture, especially after Winterbottom’s anti-American agitprop in last year’s The Road to Guantanamo. On the one hand, Will Patton has a long tradition of playing creeps, and we’re obviously meant to find his exuberance disturbing. But then again, it’s thanks to the Captain’s freewheeling interrogation methods that one of the suspects finally delivers a useful name: Sheikh Omar, who will eventually be captured and convicted for his role in Pearl’s abduction and murder.
The scene in which some of Daniel’s associates watch the video of his execution (which, thankfully, remains invisible to the audience) is queasily realistic: When you’ve just watched your colleague beheaded on film, what else could you do but pace up and down shouting, “Fuck, fuck, fuck”? And when Daniel’s editor, who’s become a father figure to Mariane, gives her the news, a moment that could easily have turned to emotional pornography is devastatingly effective, acted and shot without a hint of sensationalism.
It’s not until after the news of Daniel’s death that A Mighty Heart veers into the third and worst of its incarnations: a hagiographic chronicle of the martyrdom of Mariane Pearl. Proportionally, this segment makes up a small part of the movie—perhaps the last 15 or 20 of its 103 minutes—but it’s such a departure in tone that I left the theater remembering the sentimental ending rather than the taut, intelligent film that preceded it. By all accounts, the real Mariane Pearl is an impressive and admirable person, and I have no objection to her coming off well in a movie based on her memoir. But the final moments all but outfit her with a halo, as we watch her (in flashback) descend a staircase in a rose-bedecked wedding dress, groan her way through a completely unnecessary birthing scene, kvell over the resulting baby, and finally, walk down a Paris street in a chic raincoat, holding the hand of her now 5-year-old son. After more than an hour of dense, layered storytelling that took pains not to turn into The Angelina Jolie Show, it was baffling to watch A Mighty Heart trade on Jolie’s status as tabloid saint, U.N. goodwill ambassador, and all-around “best woman in the world.”