Michael Winterbottom is one of the world's most fascinating directors. Do you know any other filmmaker capable of moving so gracefully from a witty, powdered-wig, literary satire like Tristram Shandy to a grimly authentic agitprop docudrama like Road to Guantanamo? Of course he's also the bloke who made an awkward mess of indie rock and explicit sex in the flop 9 Songs. Whatever, Winterbottom never backs down from a challenge, and here dares to make a thriller from a story where you know the ending from the start.
In Adapting Mariane Pearl's memoir about the abduction and murder of her husband Daniel, the director has embraced the bleakest source material imaginable, and scrounges around for some scraps of light in the darkest depths. To say that A Mighty Heart is devastating, airless and grueling is not a criticism, but proof that Winterbottom pulled off something extremely tricky.
Danny Pearl (Dan Futterman) was the South Asian bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal. In winter 2002, he was ready to split dodgy Pakistan for the safety of Dubai with his pregnant wife and fellow reporter Mariane (Angelina Jolie). Dedicated journalist that he was, Danny had one more source to work, and set off for a clandestine meeting. Danny never returned, and the bulk of the film's running time is both a police procedural about the massive search for Pearl and his captors, and an intimate tribute to a cruelly extinguished love.
The facts emerge in painstaking detail, though we never see the actual kidnapping or its grisly aftermath on screen, but as family, friends and detectives ping-pong between hope and despair, the nightmarish inevitability is thick in the air. Cinematographer Marcel Zyskind captures every bit of the dirt, grit and life on Karachi's chaotic streets with an immediacy that keeps things thoroughly grounded in reality.
Mariane is the anchor throughout, driving the action with her own reporting skills and an unshakable desire to explore every possible avenue. Jolie is a force of nature in the role, so marvelously restrained, focused and graceful we can momentarily forget how damn famous she is, that she's the world's sexiest woman, or that she tried to ban Fox News from covering the film's premiere. In fact, the politics here, surprisingly, aren't strident, and, aside from one cartoonishly arrogant CIA agent, fairly even-handed. No one is too heroic or too villainous, and even in a film that celebrates the humanizing mission of good journalism, some press folks are seen as predatory, thoughtless jackals.
If anything, the tone here is too aloof, the narrative seems detached; though this might be a coping device on the way to an emotional, cathartic climax. This clinical approach keeps things from getting too maudlin, but also keeps the viewer at a bit of distance, especially from Danny himself, who floats over the action like a sainted martyr. Still there are reminders — in flashbacks and intimate glimpses — of not just what a tragedy happened to one family, but keeps happening whenever we surrender to fear.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.