Before seeing A Mighty Heart I made a mistake – I thought I knew what to expect from Michael Winterbottom’s new film. I knew that Winterbottom is driven to jump genres, and I assumed that A Mighty Heart was exactly what it was being sold as: a weepy tearjerker strong woman movie. It turns out that the film is actually a complex and tough-minded companion piece to Winterbottom’s neofactualist wonder from last year, The Road to Guantanamo. A Mighty Heart is a celebration of dignity and devotion, while also making scathing points about the way the media deals with news, about the way that America treats prisoners and the way that 19th century nationalistic thinking is getting in the way of progress in the war on terror.
A Mighty Heart is based on the true story of Mariane Pearl, whose husband, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, was kidnapped in Pakistan while investigating shoe bomber Richard Reid, held for weeks and eventually beheaded on video tape. Winterbottom’s film sticks to the month where Pearl was missing, a month where a very pregnant Mariane was the center support column in a multi-national effort to find and rescue her husband. Angelina Jolie plays Mariane, wearing her hair frizzy and her skin darkened to portray a woman of Afro-Cuban descent; when the first pictures of Jolie in costume hit the web, I found myself vaguely offended (even though Mariane Pearl apparently chose Jolie; this is like me picking Denzel Washington to play me in my biopic), but it turns out that Jolie’s brownface isn’t that big a deal in context. She looks just sort of tanned, especially when everyone around her in Pakistan is much darker. More distracting is her accent; Mariane Pearl was raised in Paris, but Jolie’s accent keeps slipping toward Count Dracula territory.
Despite all of that, Jolie is often excellent in the lead role. Mariane doesn’t fall into hysterics, but rather gets into action when Daniel goes missing. Jolie plays it well, allowing us to see the crumbling walls inside the woman as she struggles to stay strong, but never playing her as being a moment away from tears. In many ways, the movie has Mariane reacting in a fashion that is, cinematically, male – she throws herself into research and working with Pakistani and American authorities, denying herself to such an extent that she gets sick from holding in her urine too long. It’s only at the end, when Daniel’s death is irrefutable, that Mariane breaks down into primitive howls of anguish that will raise goosebumps on your soul… and earn Jolie an Academy Award nomination.
Winterbottom begins the film with a fairly mainstream style, but as the situation gets more and more intense his camera becomes more and more subjective. By the time Pakistani security forces raid an apartment complex, hoping to capture someone who knows where Pearl is and getting into a firefight, Winterbottom has come completely to the quasi-documentary style of Guantanamo. It’s a powerful choice, and it works to keep us distanced from the well-known tragic outcome of the story; we’re so engrossed in some of the procedural aspects of the story that we forget it’s all hopeless, that Pearl’s headless corpse will be found dumped on the roadside by the end of the film.
Winterbottom and screenwriter John Orloff (making his feature debut adapting Mariane Pearl’s memoir of the same title) also make thematically complex decisions and subtly weave them into the film. Both Pearls are journalists, and the movie makes no bones about it – these are the good journalists. When the movie opens we see them out contacting sources and doing interviews; their journalism requires a lot of legwork. Daniel in particular covers all his bases, visiting the American consulate and a private security firm before taking a meeting with a terrorist who supported Richard Reid. When Daniel is kidnapped, his editor from the Journal flies immediately to Pakistan and throws himself into the work, cutting off his own life to try and save the reporter’s. In contrast is the mob and TV media, who set up outside the gates of the Pearl house, shouting and flashing bulbs at everyone who drives up. While doing press for this film, Jolie took criticism for shutting out some outlets and forcing others to sign what was viewed as an onerous release; critics said that she was promoting a movie about freedom of the press by trying to crush the press. The truth is that the people who complained are the ones the Orloff’s script despises, the satellite truck types who park endlessly in front of Daniel’s family’s home, the voracious pack of reporters who press into an elevator after Mariane. They don’t want the story, they want the pain – after Mariane does a final appearance on CNN where she is calm, collected, dignified and most of all evenhanded about the suffering that is happening to other people caught up in the ideological throes of the war on terror, a staffer comments that the interview was disappointing because Mariane didn’t look like a woman whose husband was just beheaded. And that’s the attitude, Winterbottom is telling us, that is killing us, that is taking our eyes off the real stories, the stories that Daniel Pearl was working to tell in an evenhanded and fair manner. We’re distracted by the tear on the cheek because it makes good television, and when someone holds that back in order to speak simple truth, we dismiss her – it was the spectacle we wanted, not truth.
The film’s other big concern is Guantanamo and how America treats prisoners. Pearl’s captors demand the release of detainees at Guantanamo in exchage for his life, and they send pictures to the press of the reporter in poses they say are identical to how Muslims are treated by the US government. Winterbottom walks a tightrope here, but he never even comes close to making you think that on some level Pearl – the American Jew – deserved what happened because of his country’s actions. Rather, the director is able to examine the way actions have reactions, and how the US government’s policies about prisoners blowback into danger for American citizens. For conservatives, it’s all black and white – if you’re against the torture and abuse at Guantanamo, you must want the terrorists to win. Winterbottom shows the depravity of the terrorists while also showing the moral failings of America. He also does something I didn’t expect – he has American consulate security official, a very sympathetic character, singing the praises of Pakistan’s draconian methods, which include harassing innocents, unmotivated home searches and even torture… and you kind of agree with him. The torture yields results, but at the same time you see the damage done by the strong arm tactics. For those who support inhuman practices, this will be a reaffirmation, but for those with a more complex worldview, Winterbottom is showing the pros and cons of going to the next level.
Daniel Pearl is the ghost hanging over the whole film. Played by Dan Futterman, Pearl is kidnapped very early in the story, but Orloff’s script keeps him present through quick flashbacks to earlier parts of his relationship with Mariane. Futterman has a genial and handsome smile, and while you wouldn’t expect to see him on the arm of a Jolie in real life, it’s obvious why these two people fell so much in love. Winterbottom populates his film with both non-actors and especially gifted professionals, like the beautiful Archie Panjabi as Asra, a journalist friend of the Pearls who, because she’s Indian, gets targeted by Pakistani security for harassment. Winterbottom also treats all of his characters with respect, so that someone like Irfan Khan’s Captain, who begins as seemingly another example of Pakistani incompetence, grows into someone who is completely invested in rescuing Pearl. At the end of the movie there’s a dinner where all of these people get together one last time, and while you may not know every character’s name, you know every single one of them as people. The scene is a sweet and sad one, and perhaps more than any other says volumes about the strange, interconnected world in which we live, and how it’s possible to find ways to overcome the differences that keep us apart.
I hope A Mighty Heart is a subversive movie, bringing in people who expect what I did, and instead of giving them a ten hanky weepfest gives them some hard edged, unvarnished looks at the state of the world today – the real state of the world, not the one we briefly glimpse on TV between Lindsay’s latest rehab stint and Paris’ prison drama. Our news media is letting us down and killing us with frivolity; thank God Michael Winterbottom is there trying to take up the slack.