Jolie minus the Hollywood sheen

Rated 4.0

A Mighty Heart is director Michael Winterbottom’s film of Mariane Pearl’s book about the abduction and murder of her husband, Daniel, the Wall Street Journal reporter who disappeared in Karachi, Pakistan, in early 2002. Danny Pearl’s case is a familiar one: The investigation into his kidnapping made headlines the world over, and the video of his murder is available on the Internet to anyone who is, for whatever reason, inclined to seek such things out.

Winterbottom and screenwriter John Orloff follow the structure of the book, beginning with the morning Danny (Dan Futterman) leaves his pregnant wife, Mariane (Angelina Jolie), for an interview he has scheduled with a reclusive Islamic militant as part of his investigation into the story of shoe bomber Richard Reid. As dinnertime comes and goes and Danny doesn’t return, it becomes clear that something has gone wrong. Mariane, with the cautious vigilance that becomes second nature to reporters working in hazardous corners of the world, doesn’t hesitate to report Danny’s disappearance, and the search for her missing husband is on the way to its tragic outcome.

A Mighty Heart is a riveting, sometimes confusing film, as it follows the tangled skein of informants, contacts, leads and dead-ends of the investigation—and I don’t want to minimize Winterbottom and Orloff’s achievement in bringing it to the screen. Still, it may disappoint some readers of Mariane’s book that the film focuses so much on the police-procedural aspects of the story, while those who haven’t read the book may wonder where the title comes from. The “mighty heart” of Danny, which by all accounts was equally prominent in the book, is covered in the film only by scattered, fleeting flashbacks—almost-impressionistic moments that quickly sketch Danny and Mariane’s meeting, courtship, wedding and life together before returning us to the teeming Karachi streets and the dogged work of a character known only as “Captain” (Irfan Khan), a Pakistani police investigator determined to get to the bottom of the crime and minimize the “disgrace” to his country.

It was probably the best approach. Spending more screen time on the flashbacks, filling in the character of Danny, might well have given the movie a conventional—and artificial—Hollywood sheen. The presence of Jolie alone might have threatened to do that, but she and Winterbottom submerge her super-celeb persona in a delicate and natural performance that matches Winterbottom’s semi-documentary style and the HD-video of Marcel Zyskind’s cinematography.

In the structure that Winterbottom and Orloff have established, Jolie shares prominence with Khan as the Captain. His performance is a bit of a balancing act, as the film shows the Captain using investigative techniques that are not always available to sympathetic police characters—not in movies, anyway. We may not approve of everything the Captain does in searching for Danny’s abductors, but at least we’re glad he’s on Mariane’s side.

As A Mighty Heart moves toward its foreknown conclusion, the suspense of the search for Danny and his kidnappers gives way to suspense over how the movie is going to handle Danny’s gruesome end: How will Winterbottom and Orloff portray the delivery and viewing of the video on which the murder was recorded? It’s a relief and a pleasure to report that this climactic moment is dealt with in an unflinching yet non-graphic manner.

And in a dramatically startling moment, we hear a sound that we first take to be a cry of anguish from Mariane upon viewing the video. But no, it’s not that; it’s her crying out in labor as she gives birth to Adam, her and Danny’s son, months after the death of the father who never knew him. That daring juxtaposition of grief and ongoing life is the point at which Winterbottom’s film most closely touches the healing power of Mariane’s book. If the book is a tribute to the courage and humanity of Daniel, the movie is a tribute to those same virtues in his widow, and to those friends who supported her in her terrible hour of need.