It's a sign of filmmaking prowess, and occasionally genius, when a director can hand viewers a scenario with a foregone conclusion and make them get lost in the story anyway. In A Mighty Heart, Michael Winterbottom shows that he is definitely that kind of director, flinging us into a panicked maelstrom of chases and false leads that all lead to the same murderous finale, one that is likely clear even to people unfamiliar with the true story the film is closely molded from. Daniel Pearl, respected and beloved journalist for the Wall Street Journal, was kidnapped in Karachi in late January 2002 as he was researching a story on the shoe-bomber Richard Reid. His pregnant wife, journalist Mariane Pearl, marshals an ad-hoc group of his co-workers, Pakistani police, and U.S. officials to find him before it's too late. They're too late.
At the time, Pearl's kidnapping was like a tertiary aftershock to 9/11, proving that nobody was safe. The World Trade Center, international symbol of dominating Western capitalism, made sense as a target. Pearl, a universally respected journalist (evidence shows that "beloved" would actually not have been too strong a description of people's feelings about him) who wanted only to understand the terrorists and to explain them to the world, made no sense. And it's that swirling fog of frightened confusion that Winterbottom evokes so powerfully in A Mighty Heart, one of the best films yet made about modern terrorism.
Based on Mariane Pearl's account of the kidnapping, Winterbottom's lighty-scripted film is a heady and atmospheric film that meshes the hazy rush of the early parts of his Road to Guantanamo with the sharp and detail-oriented reportage of a particularly good Frontline episode. We see relatively little of Danny (played by Dan Futterman, who bears an extraordinary likeness) before he disappears on his way to meeting an extremist cleric, Sheikh Gilani. The rest of the film clicks together in quick fashion as the alarm bells begin to go off: Danny's editor flies over from the U.S., the embassy gets involved, FBI agents show up, as do multiple elements of Pakistani law-enforcement. The clues are thin, but the resources devoted to finding Danny come off as truly astounding, with a massive Pakistani-U.S. team chasing the faintest of leads down thronging Karachi streets. The heat of the hunt doesn't make Winterbottom ignore the street detail; although admiring of Daniel Pearl, he knows quite well that had he not been a well-known American reporter, barely one-hundredth of these same resources would have been deployed for his rescue.
At the middle of this storm is Mariane, played under surprisingly effective makeup by Angelina Jolie (Mariane herself is Dutch and Afro-Cuban), who shows that yes, she can still act when she wants to these days; but sadly still can't do an authentic accent to save her life. Many coming to the Pearls' story for the first time will find Jolie an oddly sedate presence here, as audiences are more used to seeing her in high-camp (Alexander) or animal magnetism (Girl, Interrupted) mode. But Jolie was handed a difficult role here, as the real-life Mariane -- at least, the persona she portrayed in the excellent 2006 documentary The Journalist and the Jihadi -- is possessed of an almost preternatural calm that could leave some frustrated at not seeing more fireworks, particularly given the extreme situation she is flung into. In short, Jolie has to play a real person, and not a movie-star interpretation of a real person. She had to; only a real person could get away with saying, as she does later in the film, "I am not terrorized." In the mouth of an actress, such words would seem ridiculous. She and Winterbottom forgo almost every opportunity to tart it up, to give her great emotional climaxes, instead rushing ahead in the manner of a classic, beat-the-clock crime procedural.
Since most of the characters here puzzling through this tangled kidnapping plot are revealed only in short glimpses and hacked-off shards of conversation, it's fortunate that Winterbottom has assembled such a crack cast. From Broadway veteran Denis O'Hare, as Pearl's hasty and impatient editor, to Bollywood star Irfan Khan as the imperturbably cool Pakistani counter-terrorism officer, it's a uniformly stellar assemblage. They elegantly portray the humanity of the multifarious people caught up in this baffling story, where clues seem to lead only to more clues, deeper and deeper into an extremist underground that appears to stretch on forever, a twilight world that only rare people like Daniel Pearl cared (or dared) to explore without being forced to. And now, fewer probably will.
A mighty meeting.