A Mighty Heart

Every day, on television, on the internet and on line at the supermarket check-out, we are reminded how much of a great beauty Angelina Jolie is. But it’s not every day we are reminded how much of a great actress Jolie is.

Her latest film, an adaptation of Mariane Pearl’s non-fiction novel about the disappearance of her husband, Wall Street Journal writer Daniel Pearl, gives us our first real glimpse of the actor some of us fell in love with years ago since… well, since movies like “Firefox,” “Gia,” “Pushing Tin” and her Oscar-winning role in “Girl, Interrupted” before the new millennium. While there is little wrong with an actor going for the big paycheck in lieu of an acting challenge, as Jolie has done in the more recent past with amusement park movies like the “Tomb Raider” series and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” that type of filmmaking rarely gives a thespian chances to emote in between the jumping and the gunfire and the rapid-fire editing that only gives the actor three-quarters of a second to convey any kind of emotion. Working with an iconoclast director like Michael Winterbottom suits Jolie’s abilities the best, and helps her to bring her best performance to date, yet it is Winterbottom, making his first major Hollywood production, who somewhat fails the material.

The main reason the film does not work as well as it could is because the fate of Daniel Pearl (here played by Dan Futterman, eerily looking almost exactly like the real Pearl) in the early days of 2002 is indelibly etched in our collective minds, and any attempt to artificially raise the hopes of unsuspecting audiences will never change the fact that Mr. Pearl will sadly never come home. Or perhaps it is because, as tragic as the Pearl story is, for husband and wife their unborn child, their story is not fully developed enough. Mariane wrote the book “A Mighty Heart” introduce her now four-year-old son Adam to the father he would never get to meet, and through the course of the movie we are introduced to Daniel, his parents and his sister, their friends and co-workers, but all of them, and even Mariane, take a back-seat to the international manhunt to find Daniel, which is the far more developed and, frankly, the far more interesting storyline here.

With the help of a team of experts including a U.S. diplomatic security specialist (the always exceptional Will Patton, become this generation’s Robert Duvall with every passing year) and the captain of Pakistan’s counterterrorism unit (Indian actor Irfan Khan), Mariane spends several weeks retracing the final steps of her husband, who was on his way to interview an elusive sheikh who may know something about Richard Reid, the British-born member of al-Qaeda who attempted to blow up an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami with a bomb hidden in his shoe. Slowly, and in often antagonizing detail, the team unravels how concentrated the conspiracy was to capture Daniel, whom, it was claimed by radial Islamists, was a spy for the CIA.

Winterbottom often employs the docu-drama “you are there” style of filmmaking throughout many of his directorial efforts, and never more so than here has he utilized this device so effectively, without a hint of manipulation or exploitation or even remorse. This is what happened, this is the world we live in and this is what people will do to one another when religion fanaticism enters an already tenuous situation.

It is strange that, even with a career performance by one of the world’s biggest stars, great performances by the majority of her co-stars and strong direction by one of modern cinema’s best storytellers, I was still left with a sense of disappointment. I expected more from Winterbottom, who pulled no punches with heavily political films like “Welcome to Sarajevo,” “In This World” and “The Road to Guantanemo,” but seems to realize that he’s going to need one hit American film so he can continue to make his quirky little indie films for another decade. I also expected, from a movie based on a wife’s book about her murdered husband entitled “A Mighty Heart,” to see more of what made her so devoted to him. I admit I have yet to read the book, so I might not know exactly what I am talking about, but the book’s subtitle, “The Brave Life and Death of My Husband,” implies some background between Daniel and Mariane, but outside of a few brief scenes of the two in their life before arriving in Karachi after the September 11 attacks, we never get to know either of them very well. In fact, we hardly get to see the mighty heart alluded to in the title.

Still, “A Mighty Heart” is powerful storytelling, one that should smack viewers out of their complacency and get them asking questions which never should have stopped being asked so quickly after 9/11.

Rating: B-