Thursday, January 17, 2008

A Mighty Heart

The verdict: At times powerful, this movie tells a story worth hearing. Although flawed, it features an accomplished central performance from Angelina Jolie.

The rating: 6/10

A Mighty Heart tells the story of Daniel Pearl, an American journalist kidnapped in Karachi, and the efforts of his pregnant wife and the Pakistani authorities to find him. Daniel and Marianne Pearl (Angelina Jolie) reported from Afghanistan after September 11th 2001, and then moved to Karachi, Pakistan - a city with strong connections to the Taliban - when most foreign journalists had packed up and gone home.

With Marianne almost five months pregnant, the couple are also due to head to Dubai, but Daniel (Dan Futterman) has arranged a last meeting with a certain Sheikh Gilani the day before they are due to leave. Danny goes to great pains to verify with embassy personnel that what he is doing is not a crazy idea, and he arranges to meet Gilani in a public place on their advice. However, Danny does not return home that night, and Marianne has to call for help the next day.

When Pakistani CID and American FBI and embassy personnel are alerted to the American journalists' situation, the investigation kicks off. Marianne is all too aware of the dangers faced by her missing husband however, so she alerts her employers, The Wall Street Journal, and they too begin working to find Danny. Day by day, as the investigation progresses, the pressure grows on Marianne and those around her. With every passing moment, the search becomes more of a political issue, and increasingly pressurised at ground level. In a telling moment, as hope of Danny's safe return is gradually ebbing away, Marianne is advised by the chief FBI investigator that she can't crumble under the pressure. Everybody else can, but not her.

Directed by the eclectic Michael Winterbottom, the movie is scripted by John Orloff, based on Marianne's book. It is essentially a story of a woman's personal strength at this most traumatic of times. Her will to continue searching for her husband in Karachi, a massively sprawling city of nearly 12 million people, and fully cognisant of the chances of his safe return, is impressively portrayed by Angelina Jolie in a performance that holds the movie together. This is her search, and noone would have blamed her for falling apart, but she does not. Far from it, she applies herself to the search, postponing emotion until the search reaches an irrefutable conclusion.

The movie avoids getting embroiled in politics, focussing instead on the emotional bond between a loving husband and wife, and Marianne's simple natural desire to get her husband back safely from a difficult situation. Politics are presented merely in the context of the search, how they provide clues and obstacles to Danny's recovery, and this keeps the essence of the story at a human level.

Jolie is quietly impressive in the lead, and delivers an understated performance of real strength and contained despair, apart from a small number of scenes where an eruption of emotion are fully justifiable. Winterbottom performs well too, capturing the sprawing chaos of Karachi extremely well, with unstaged city scenes repeatedly seen at ground level, almost always from a moving car. Orloff's script approaches this very human story in a pragmatic manner, with barely contained emotion and the desire to get this man back the common thread holding these characters together.

Unfortunately, there is a downside. The shaky-cam shootout sequences felt somewhat tacked on after the tense investigation scenes, and some of the moments featuring the Pakistani CID's interrogations jarred a little for me. Also, I felt that some of the supporting cast weren't quite up to the challenge of this demanding script.

That said, 'A Mighty Heart' is a story well told, and certainly one worth hearing. It doesn't quite reach the dizziest of heights, but Marianne Pearl's strength is inspiring, and Jolie's performance certainly reflects a respect and desire to do her story justice.

So, all told, a qualified recommendation from me for this one. It's flawed, but there's also a lot to like.

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