Directed by: Michael Winterbottom
Written by: John Orloff (based on the book by Mariane Pearl)
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Dan Futterman, Archie Panjabi, Mohammed Afzal, Mushtaq Khan
Released: 2007 / Genre: True story/drama/political / Country: USA/UK / IMDB
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If you liked A Mighty Heart check out: The Road to Guantanamo
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A Mighty Heart immediately followed The Road To Guantanamo, Michael Winterbottom’s first venture into middle-eastern war zones. Both films share similar themes: the war on terror, post 9/11 paranoia, and westerners’ in peril. The UK-born director deserves credit for tackling such difficult themes with an assured hand. He’s taken risks before, sometimes they’ve worked (A Cock and Bull Story), sometimes they’ve failed (9 Songs) but at least the man who rose to prominence with 2002’s 24 Hour Party People isn’t afraid to tread down dangerous roads for the good of artistic integrity.
A Mighty Heart, based on the memoirs of Mariane Pearl, follows the real life story of Mariane’s attempts to find her kidnapped husband. In January 2002, Daniel Pearl was on his way to an interview with Sheikh Mubarak Ali Gilani as follow up to his investigation for the Wall Street Journal on links between shoe bomber Richard Reid, Al-Qaeda and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. The interview, however, was a set-up and he was consequently kidnapped by a group going by the name The National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistan Sovereignty. Via email the group contacted the United States government with a list of demands, mainly for the release of detainees at Guantanamo prison.
We see these harrowing days from Mariane’s perspective. Angelina Jolie, in one of her most restrained roles, shows a subtle defiance masking pressure-cooker anger. Mariane, heavily pregnant with Daniel’s baby, is the helpless onlooker to a political and bureaucratic machine. Winterbottom never lets the film get bogged down by its obvious political overtones, concentrating on the bond between husband and wife, mother and father. This theme is ably supported by Jolie in one of the best roles of her career. Her tempered performance shows the fragility in even the most steely disposition, but when the grief and anguish become too much, her eventual breakdown (the screaming and crying of mental and physical pain beautifully mirrored by Winterbottom when Mariane gives birth) is both the film’s and Jolie’s defining moment.
It is however Winterbottom’s determination to stay very centralist that the film loses some of its impact. The various governing bodies – from the Pakistani government, the CIA, the US state officials – are a collective machine without identity. On focusing primarily on Mariane – perfectly fine for a perspective-based memoir – we lose the tug-of-war wrangling and political idealism that was obviously taking place. There’s a lovely scene around a dinner table where Mariane and friends debate global terrorism, a journalist’s purpose, and cross-ethnic idiosyncrasies, but such moments are only merely hinted at for most of the film.
But Winterbottom has style, and again in A Mighty Heart, we see his jump-cuts, flash-backs, and handheld documentary photography work particularly well. Like The Road To Guantanamo, the director gives his true story realistic grounding. Shots of people talking in crowded rooms is a mishmash of conversation unclear to the viewer, and frequently the camera is looking elsewhere with the action appearing off-screen. There’s an authenticity to this documentary-like realism which makes the traumatic events more affecting.
Even though A Mighty Heart may overestimate its impact on a grander scale, it doesn’t betray Winterbottom’s ambition. Without an assured, resolute Jolie performance the film may easily pass by unnoticed, but that would be unfair. As a small film about hope in a big world sadly lacking it, there’s something truly mighty about this film’s steely heart.
Review by Daniel Stephens – See all reviews here