A Mighty Heart may take place in the shadow of 9/11 and against the background of the War on Terror, but it’s a highly personal story about the nature of hope and the strength of love. Of all the personal stories to come out of the turmoil following the terrorist attacks on America and the subsequent war in Afghanistan, few were as affecting as the plight of a Wall Street Journal reporter, captured while doing his job and then later killed and the woman who tried so valiantly to free him. This is their story.
Based on the memoir of Mariane Pearl, renowned director Michael Winterbottom (The Road to Guantanamo) follows the events as they unfolded, from Pearl’s (Dan Futterman) disappearance while running around the streets of Karachi looking for an interviewee to the aftermath of his beheading by supporters of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The story focuses on Mariane (Angelina Jolie) as she navigates the whirlwind of forces, the Americans, the Pakistanis and the Jihadis, in order to find her husband. Even while five months pregnant, Mariane keeps up a hectic pace to track her husband, until the sadly inevitable happens.
This is a tremendous showcase of Jolie as she gets to exhibit the kind of acting chops that we’ve known she can deliver, yet haven’t seen for years. Not that this is a star-driven film, because the cast really does feel united as an ensemble, but it’s up to Jolie to anchor it all and be the centre around which the action moves. She imbues Mariane with tremendous courage and perseverance, that it rocks you to the core when she finally lets herself feel the loss when Daniel is found dead. Jolie is able to turn her emotions on a dime, like when an impudent reporter asks him if she’s seen the video of her husband’s death and her tone suddenly goes from pleasant to infuriated as she asks the interviewer if he has any decency.
Aside from Jolie, the other star at work here is Winterbottom, who handles the narrative complexities and the emotionally charged storyline with tremendous style. Shooting the film in sequence, Witterbottom uses a cinema vérité style to develop a real sense of realism and a more documentary feeling as the camera feels like a person on the periphery watching the people respond to events. The film also moves at a quick clip, as if capturing that feeling of time moving swiftly, as it does anytime we feel as if events are outside of our control or influence. Witterbottom isn’t interested in any periphery characters or the grander debates of the War on Terror. He keeps his focus squarely on this woman and her struggle.
A Mighty Heart is a wonderfully intimate film, masterfully put together by the confident hand of a determined director. It features a performance by a woman who’s the modern embodiment of the movie star, but she disappears so completely into the part you barely notice that it’s her. More importantly, it brings down to Earth the story of a couple that were simply trying to find the truth, only to face the horrible consequence such a pursuit can sometimes end up and how love can see you through the darkest of times. This is a beautiful movie to be sure.