The accurate and entertaining political/historical film has always been a rare bird because it is an extremely difficult film to make. The difficulty lies in the simple fact that everyone knows (or thinks they know) how the tale ends. Nonetheless, when done well (“All the President’s Men”), these films can be every bit as thrilling as a great, unsolved mystery. Done poorly, we end up with mediocrities like “Thirteen Days.” ”A Mighty Heart” is one of the good ones.
Most of us are sadly familiar with the story of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping and the subsequent public pleas for mercy issued by his wife, Mariane. Most recall how the incident ended. Mariane Pearl then began work on the memoir that became a bestseller and, ultimately, this film. Although husband Danny (played with assurance by Dan Futterman, who penned “Capote”) is absolutely central to the story, it is for the most part a film about Mariane. Star Angelina Jolie has been a close personal friend of Mariane and her son, Adam. It was Adam that the pregnant Mariane is carrying when she accompanies her husband on that last fateful trip to Pakistan. (Mariane is also a journalist; the two worked together often.)
Jolie seems at first like an odd choice; her humanitarian efforts, her high-profile marriage, tomato-slicing cheekbones, super-sized lips, etc., have all caused her serious overexposure. Her stunt last week at the premiere didn’t help, either. Some have gone so far as to complain that all this elicits a sense of do-gooder self-righteousness on Jolie’s part. None of it addresses her talent, of course, but the point is she brings a lot of baggage to the screen, and this has an effect on viewers’ receptions.
This was Jolie’s toughest role in years, and she nailed it. “Tomb Raider” this is not. She somehow dodges our previous images and expectations, playing things down and handling the climactic, wrenching later scenes with clarity and grace. She even gets the accent right.
The supporting cast is more than up to the challenge of withstanding the blazing heat and star power of Jolie’s acting. They hold their own in the charisma department, most especially veteran character actor Will Patton as a sharp-minded U.S. Consulate security officer who warns the couple early on.
Finally, director Michael Winterbottom deserves a fair share of credit. Winterbottom has done some fine work recently (“The Road to Guantanamo”), but this is surely his best film. Over the years his visual style has become more and more documentarian. This time he shows a deep affinity for “NYPD Blue”-style shaky-cam and gritty, quick-paced layers of subplots a la “Syriana.” The story gets a bit confusing in the last half, and it seems there was a good deal of back story left out. We need to know more about the young Danny Pearl, for example.
Nevertheless, the story is mighty powerful.