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Mighty Heart, A
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by Peter Sobczynski

"A Mighty Triumph For Winterbottom and Jolie"
4 stars

The insanely prolific British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom seems to have dedicated his career to confounding expectations with each successive movie. Just to get an idea of the breadth of his filmography, consider the fact that since 2000, he has given us a sturdy and powerful literary adaptation (“The Claim”), a surreal rock biopic (“24 Hour Party People”), a haunting road movie ripped from contemporary headlines about Afghan refugees trying to escape to London (“In This World”), a strange low-tech sci-fi film (“Code 46"), a micro-budgeted stab at experimental erotica (“9 Songs”), a hilarious meta-comedy about an attempt to film an adaptation of a book long deemed unfilmable by the few who have actually managed to read it (“Tristram Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story”) and a muckraking docudrama about the goings-on at Guantanamo Bay see through the eyes of three unjustly imprisoned British Muslims (“The Road to Guantanamo”). Although the quality has sometimes varied, his weaker efforts (such as the inexplicable “9 Songs”) have at least been fundamentally interesting works and his best (my picks would be “The Claim” and “Tristram Shandy”) have been among the finest films to come along in recent years and demonstrate a filmmaker ready and willing to challenge himself with each successive project.

Because of his reputation as a prolific iconoclast, many eyebrows were raised when it was announced that he would be directing “A Mighty Heart,” the screen adaptation of Mariane Pearl’s best-selling memoir of the 2002 kidnapping of her husband, journalist Daniel Pearl, while on assignment in Pakistan and the five-week investigation into his disappearance that came to a shocking end with the release of a videotape of his decapitation at the hands of his captors . For starters, it would, unlike most of his other projects, be produced for a major studio (well, the major studio subdivision Paramount Vantage) under the auspices of Brad Pitt’s Plan B production company. Then there was the matter of Angelina Jolie being hired to portray Mariane Pearl, a bit of mega-star casting on a level never seen before in a Winterbottom film. Finally, there was the subject matter itself–while Winterbottom has used our current global unrest as the subject for two of his previous films (“In This World” and “The Road to Guantanamo”), this particular subject seemed a little more obvious and melodramatic from a storytelling standpoint than those earlier films.

With this combination of elements, one might reasonably expect the resulting film to be a middle-of-the-road tearjerker–a glossier and more expensive version of one of those Lifetime Original Movie–and one thoroughly dominated by the kind of wildly emotive star turn that seems tailor-made for year-end awards consideration. Once again, though, Winterbottom has chosen to go off the beaten path and has approached the material in a wholly unanticipated manner that is a million miles removes from the soap operatics that the film could have devolved into. The result is a smart, powerful and unexpectedly moving drama that will keep viewers gripped and engaged throughout even as it moves towards its inevitable conclusion.

The story begins in January, 2002 as “Wall Street Journal” writer Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman) and his five-months-pregnant wife Mariane (Jolie), a reporter herself, are preparing to return to the U.S. after several months on assignment in Pakistan. At the last minute, however, Danny gets a tip from an informant about a possible lead in the story of attempted shoe bomber Richard Reid and goes off to Karachi to track it down. He doesn’t return and once it becomes apparent that most of the contact information he was sent was bogus, it is assumed that he has been kidnapped and a large-scale investigation into his disappearance begins in earnest, led by a dedicated counter-terrorism expert known only as The Captain (Irrfan Khan). Alas, despite the best efforts of all involved, the investigation devolves into a series of dead ends, tensions between various factions, innuendo (it doesn’t help Daniel’s case that he is a.) American, b.) Jewish and c.) a journalist) and outright confusion that is punctuated only by the occasional video or photo from Daniel’s captors showing that he is still alive. Throughout this entire ordeal, one might have expected Mariane to be an emotional wreck throughout but instead, she refuses to let the events define her or her husband and cooly and calmly works the mystery from within the walls of the home belonging to friend and fellow journalist Asra Nomani (Archie Panjabi) while the Captain, an American security advisor (Will Patton) and others do the same on the outside until the fateful evening, five weeks after the abduction, that saw the arrival of the videotape that brought the investigation to a sudden and shocking conclusion.

As I said, this is material that could easily be nudged into soap opera territory–and it could have conceivably made for a decent movie in that format as well–but Winterbottom has smartly chosen to nudge it in a different direction. Early on, he must have realized that while Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping and execution were well-known facts, the details of the frantic investigation into his disappearance were not. As a result, he has chosen to focus his film almost entirely on those details in a manner that makes the film play like a cross between a documentary (the film is shot in a loose, hand-held style and filmed in many of the real locations where the story developed) and an intense just-the-facts police procedural–imagine a Michael Mann drama without the flashy visual style. This is a bold stylistic gamble–the strict dedication to the facts over dramatic license may be off-putting to those viewers looking for a more emotionally accessible melodrama–but it winds up paying off in unexpected ways. For starters, it puts viewers more in sync with the characters since we in the audience are often as confused by what is going on as they are at certain points. In addition, the minutiae of the investigation becomes so engrossing that it becomes possible to forget, to a certain extent, the tragic end that is looming on the horizon. (Thankfully, Winterbottom does not in any way include a recreation of that video.)

The other surprising aspect of the film is the way that Winterbottom does not allow it to simply turn into a one-woman show for Angelina Jolie to strut her stuff. In telling a real-life story such as this, the presence of an overly familiar face, especially when the surrounding have been staged with such fidelity to realism, could have been a disastrous distraction–imagine what “United 93" might have been like if Jennifer Aniston had been one of the stewardesses. To be truthful, Jolie’s undeniable superstar quality does lend an air of unreality to the proceedings for the first few minutes but as the story progresses, that glamourous image quickly melts away and she more or less becomes Mariane Pearl. Some of this is due to Winterbottom’s smart decision to portray Mariane as the utterly calm and cool person that everyone remarked upon at the time instead of attempting to soften her into a more overtly likable personage, an approach that might have ended in disaster since Jolie, while a brilliant actress when given the right material, is an actress who is simply more at home playing someone cool and reserved instead of warm and nurturing. Against all odds, the match of actress and character here is an inspired one indeed–we instinctively believe and understand Mariane’s determination not to show any weakness or fear to the eyes of the world and when she does finally have her cathartic release once she learns what has happened to her husband to, it doesn’t come across as the award-grubbing moment that it might have felt like in other hands because by that point in the film, both Jolie and Winterbottom have earned that particular moment. (This is not to suggest that the film is a one-woman show as all the performances are quite striking–I especially liked Archie Panjabi’s turn as a colleague who becomes stricken with remorse when rumors begin to spread that her friendship with the Pearl’s may have led in some way to Daniel’s kidnapping.)

My only complaint about “A Mighty Heart” is that at only 100 minutes, it sometimes feels a little too rushed for its own good–in a season of overstuffed blockbusters that go on for far too long, here is the rare film that could have actually used an extra 20 minutes or so to tell its story. That quibble aside, “A Mighty Heart” is a fascinating work that is as intelligent and detailed as a documentary, as gripping as a straightforward thriller and reminds us once again of just how strong and fearless of an actress Angelina Jolie can be when presented with material that focuses on her thespic talents instead of her considerable sex appeal. Of course, material as heavy as this may not seem like the most appealing thing to sit through on a hot summer night–this is the type of film that one ordinarily sees in the fall when the kid-oriented blockbusters recede and more adult-oriented films are allowed into the multiplexes. Then again, it is a film so smart and well-crafted that audiences with a taste for something other than fluff should find themselves responding to it, no matter what the season.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15554&reviewer=389
originally posted: 06/24/07 18:23:24
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User Comments

10/20/07 Loni Kim One of Angelina Jolie's best performances - definitely worth a watch. 4 stars
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  22-Jun-2007 (R)
  DVD: 16-Oct-2007



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