Sunday, February 17, 2008

Movie Review: "A Mighty Heart"

Starring Angelina Jolie, Dan Futterman, Irfan Khan, Archie Panjabi, Will Patton
Directed by Michael Winterbottom

Official Web site

While the tragic fate of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl is well known and documented, the filmmakers behind the tense and thoughtful “A Mighty Heart” take a somewhat quiet approach to the material. This strategy diffuses some of the tension of the unfolding story, but the subject matter is still compelling enough to hold viewer interest.

The central strength of the film is Angelina Jolie’s gripping performance as Pearl’s pregnant wife, Mariane, who must delve deep to find strength after her husband is abducted by terrorists in Pakistan. Jolie plays the part extremely well and is utterly convincing as the wife of a journalist who fully knows the risk her husband and she face when working in countries with strong terrorist connections. Mariane is a journalist herself and believes very strongly in what her husband was writing about. She proves so in a strong scene after Pearl has been abducted, standing up to a Pakistani government official when he brings her husband’s role as a journalist into question.

Based on the memoir of Mariane Pearl and written by John Orloff, the movie generally stays focused on the day of Pearl’s abduction and the subsequent investigation and media coverage that ensued. Although there were undoubtedly a countless number of people assisting in the search for Pearl and his kidnappers, director Michael Winterbottom wisely avoids drowning the storyline with an overabundance of characters. Still, very few make much of an impact on the story, save for the strong performance of Irfan Khan as the head of Pakistani counter-terrorism. Pearl himself is played to good effect in limited screen time by Dan Futterman, who is mostly seen in flashbacks with his wife.

Although the vicious execution of Pearl was widely circulated on video, Winterbottom wisely spares audiences from witnessing it. Instead, a few of the characters’ reaction to the video is all we see – and all we need to see. Maintaining a focused and strong resolve through much of the picture, Jolie captures Mariane’s reaction to news of her husband’s death with a heartbreaking intensity. Having won an Oscar for “Girl, Interrupted” several years ago, Jolie’s skills as an actress have been almost forgotten in the time since. But this role proves she’s still a very good actress when the material matches her talent.

“A Mighty Heart” has some tension-filled moments in it, but isn’t targeted as a thriller. Rather, it has an almost documentary feel to it, with the action unfolding matter-of-factly. Since the end result of the investigation is known ahead of time, some of the film’s effectiveness is drained.

It would have been easy for the makers of “A Mighty Heart” to take some liberties with the story and punch up the action. The fact that they choose not to is a decision that doesn’t necessarily serve the commercial prospects of the film. Yet it does serve the memory of Daniel Pearl and the family he leaves behind. In the end, that has got to be worth much more than the amount of money the movie makes.

Grade: B
(Rated R for language.)