Telling the truth is generally considered to be the first step on the path to righteousness. It brings redemption to some and relieves the guilt of others. Many people have a hard time accepting the truth when faced with it. That difficulty in dealing is perhaps the main reason some run far away from the truth altogether. Given how troubling facing the truth can be in everyday reality, being subjected to it in celluloid on the big screen is a very hard sell. This is even more relevant when the film in question is based on an event that was played out to the point of emotional exhaustion in the media (just ask the producers of “United 93”). This is the plight of “A Mighty Heart”, an adaptation of Mariane Pearl’s novel of the same name, about her experiences during the search for her kidnapped husband, Daniel Pearl, in the winter of 2002. For director Michael Winterbottom, this is only the beginning though. Assuming he manages to get people to see the film, (casting Angelina Jolie in the role of Mariane Pearl certainly doesn‘t hurt the film’s chances), Winterbottom must then get people to forget that they know how it’s all going to end.
Winterbottom is too smart to go against the grain. Instead, he uses the audience’s prior knowledge of the story to incite an even deeper emotional reaction. He begins by establishing his style. “A Mighty Heart” is not a documentary but rather a fictionalized reenactment of actual events that is shot and edited like a documentary. There are no talking heads but the camera is an active participant in the drama that unfolds. Hand-held movement, jump cuts and an omnipresent observer’s point of view lend realism to the film’s already tense premise. For those who aren’t aware, Jewish-American journalist, Daniel Pearl (played here by “Capote” scribe, Dan Futterman) was kidnapped in Pakistan in January of 2002. The violent act became an international scandal as the group that claimed responsibility for the crime demanded the liberation of prisoners from American detainee prison, Guantanamo Bay, in Cuba. The American government does not give in to the terrorists’ demands. It doesn’t end well. The film focuses on the efforts made by Mariane, the Pakistani police, the C.I.A. and the journalistic community throughout the search for Daniel. Knowing Daniel doesn’t live through the ordeal and that this search is fruitless may leave the audience without hope but the dedication and fervor with which the case is attacked carries enough hope to inspire an overwhelming sympathy that sinks our hearts when what we know is coming actually comes.
A blustering soundscape and tightly framed street and crowd shots elevate stress levels to unimagined heights. Mariane is alone in a foreign country, searching for the most important person in her life. Knowing the odds are against her, holding on to hope becomes all the more complicated when she is surrounded by strangers, traffic and the sounds of incessant honking, cell phones and random farm animals. The chaos is absolutely inescapable. Yet still, Mariane must remain calm. After all, she is the heart of this operation. If her heart fails, all hope is lost and all efforts will fall apart. Jolie exhibits both outer strength and inner fragility at the same time as Mariane. She is direct and focused in face of this horrific reality, holding it together for Daniel, herself and her unborn child but Jolie’s distant eyes and suddenly fidgeted demeanor suggest just how difficult maintaining all this composure truly is. Being a journalist herself, Mariane’s most endearing quality is perhaps her ability to remain hopeful in spite of all the horror she has known in her own career without coming across as naïve. Jolie’s balancing act upon such a tightly wound rope is truly genuine in both its intention and execution.
Any movie entitled “A Mighty Heart” cannot spend all its time entrenched in fact. After all, there is a delicate, growing love between Daniel and Mariane that is also being held prisoner. This love though cannot be held captive and gives life to hope. Their love comes back to Mariane in flashes throughout her suffering. Insignificant moments like the last time they saw each other take on new meanings, making the loss feel larger while still reminding her what she is fighting to find. The truth behind “A Mighty Heart” that it takes one to live through something like this and, more importantly, live past it.
Review by Joseph Bélanger