Movie Review: A Mighty Heart
By Shane Jenkins
June 25, 2007
A Mighty Heart is the story of the death of Daniel Pearl, an American journalist kidnapped and beheaded in Pakistan in 2002. Or rather, A Mighty Heart is the story of Pearl's pregnant wife, Mariane, who waits for him to return home, and tries to gather information about his situation. It's a heartbreaking and tragic movie, even if it's never quite the bracing punch-in-the-gut it so clearly tries to be.
Paul Greengrass's United 93 was one of the best movies of last year, mostly because it departed from the usual trappings of the tragedy re-creation genre. There were no above-the-line stars, no manipulative music to cue the audience how to feel, and it managed to build suspense, even while the ending was never in doubt. Oliver Stone's World Trade Center was a lesser accomplishment, despite being the bigger box office draw. It was more conventional, with dramatic close-ups of star Nicolas Cage, glossier cinematography and music, and therefore, I suspect, easier to sit through. A Mighty Heart sort of splits the difference between those two films.
The camera movement in A Mighty Heart recalls Greengrass's incredibly effective work in United 93, which lent the film an air of immediacy by borrowing the conventions of documentary filmmaking. His use of hand-held cameras made it feel as though the scenes were not set up and were happening in real time. A Mighty Heart's director, Michael Winterbottom, uses the same techniques, and it's nearly as potent here. Most of the film has the feel of a home movie, with the camera struggling to keep up with the action, and not entirely sure what to focus on next. The difference between the two films is in the editing. Winterbottom overuses the Michael Bay style of cutting every four or five seconds, which initially makes the proceedings seem more exciting, but becomes wearying over the course of the running time.
Like World Trade Center, A Mighty Heart is an almost old-fashioned star-driven vehicle, and the movie seems to exist primarily to win awards, rather than to say something new or insightful about its subject. At this film's center is Angelina Jolie, who these days is more known for her personal life than for her work. In the past, she has not been a very consistent actor, balancing decent performances with absolutely terrible ones (a la Gone in 60 Seconds). But she clearly relished having a role with some true emotional heft, and she does a fine job here, particularly early on, before the "Oscar clip" moments where Winterbottom allows his star to overact. Her Mariane is a beautiful, strong woman, keeping her composure under the worst imaginable circumstances, and trying to stay optimistic, even as evidence mounts that all will not end well. But the camera naturally gravitates to Jolie's star presence, and after awhile, I felt a little queasy that this real-life atrocity has been fashioned so nakedly into an award-coveting showcase. Your browser may not support display of this image.
Much has been made of Jolie's casting in the role of Mariane - the real Mariane Pearl is a black woman, while Jolie is, well, not. I'm of two minds about this. On one hand, I think the idea of color-blind casting is a good one - find the person who can best perform the role, regardless of their race. On the other hand, as good as Jolie is here, I'm not sure that she performed the role any better than another actor would have. There doesn't appear to be an overabundance of roles for black women, especially juicy, high-profile ones such as this. It feels a little unfair to me that, since Jolie can have pretty much her pick of roles, she was chosen for this one, while I'm sure that Thandie Newton, say, was never really considered for the role of Lara Croft. It would only be fair if it worked both ways. I'm aware that the real-life Mariane requested Jolie to play her, but there's always an inherent danger in having your subject be too intimately involved with your production. Mariane Pearl is a journalist, not a filmmaker, and the filmmakers should have decided on the best actor, regardless of her wishes.
The central problem with the movie is that there is not really much to it. By centering the action around Mariane, the film becomes a repetitive series of phone calls and e-mails. Every morning, she wakes up, calls people, tries calling Daniel's cell phone, attempts to get information about the people her husband was interviewing, and fills in information on a convoluted chart. Like in Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead, it becomes apparent that we are following the wrong person, while the more interesting story happens elsewhere, out of our sight. I'm not in any way saying this to dismiss the real Mrs. Pearl's plight; it's just that there is not enough to this part of her story to credibly fill out a feature-length movie.
Winterbottom attempts to compensate for this monotony by making liberal use of flashbacks. Since Daniel leaves for his ill-fated interview in the first few minutes of the film, we get to know him primarily through these memories and dreams of Mariane. Played by Dan Futterman, Daniel exudes a sort of sexy-nerd charm, and we can see why Mariane is in love with him. He has a disarming, self-effacing demeanor that would seem to make him a good interviewer. I'm certainly no fan of the conventional biopic, but I would like to have seen more of Daniel, though I suppose a movie tracing his last days from his perspective would be almost unbearable to watch.
Winterbottom is a director who likes challenges. He recently filmed the "unfilmable" novel Tristram Shandy by turning it into a mockumentary about the making of the movie. He changed up the "concert film" genre by weaving hardcore sex between musical numbers by Franz Ferdinand and The Dandy Warhols in 9 Songs. So he would seem to be up to the task of making this difficult subject matter into something transcendent, or at least watchable. And he succeeds on some level. He has an eye for uncovering the mundane details of everyday life that make these characters seem real. The crying child. Bottles of half-finished water sitting around. The way Mariane picks up a book about childbirth and puts it down without reading it. Ultimately, though, he gets painted into a corner. We know how, and even when the story will end, and since we don't see Daniel's ordeal, there's nowhere to go and nothing to for us to do but wait. And wait.