Like United 93, A Mighty Heart wears its true-story scrupulousness on its sleeve. The documentary stylings of Michael Winterbottom dole out with procedural efficiency a convincing version of the facts surrounding Mariane Pearl's anguished search for answers in the disappearance of her husband and journalist Daniel Pearl.
But when the story is as well known as the Pearls', what purpose can such a dogged recreation serve? If not to shine light on little known events or transform them with the tools of drama into something transcendent, what good can come of A Mighty Heart? As an international monument to Daniel Pearl (a voice over claims that the film, like Mariane's book, "is for Adam," her child with Daniel)? As awards fodder for its makers and star? As an advertisement for the book? As entertainment, and in what sense?
Perhaps these are questions best not asked. After the expository assault that accompanies the opening credits, the plot begins with Daniel (Dan Futterman) bidding goodbye to Mariane (Angelina Jolie) and heading out for a long day of background interviews for a story on shoe bomber Richard Reid. He would never return. The film, then, is part hand-wringing melodrama and part detective story—conducted with cell phones, email, and legwork by a team comprised of Pakistani counter-terrorist cop Captain (Irrfan Khan), American diplomatic security consultant Randall Bennett (Will Patton), and the Pearl's journalist friends and colleagues (Archie Panjabi, Denis O'Hare).
Politically, Winterbottom won't get caught with the hot potato this time. Though it can be seen as a sort of companion piece to Road to Guantanamo in recording tales from the War on Terror, A Mighty Heart's story forces Winterbottom to depict the semi-heroic expediency of civil-rights-violating torture (to soften the blow, he keeps the torture discreetly below frame and gives the American a wry one-liner expressing his infatuation with Captain's efficient methods). Lest we take the methodology as evidence of Pakistani barbarism, Winterbottom carefully depicts Captain as a strong, pure-hearted advocate for Pearl's case (more so than the FBI, which does a disappearing act) and a man concerned for Pakistan's international reputation.
When it comes to the human drama, Winterbottom focuses on how the distaught Mariane stayed strong for the sake of her missing husband and their unborn, six-month-old child. The emotional climax isn't the foregone "revelation" of Danny's death but our witnessing of Mariane's reaction. Her amplified screams and head-banging and "No! No! No! No!"s are later counterpointed by her labor screams, which show that she, like Danny, is spiritually "undefeated" by terror. Flashbacks to the couple's wedding and other happier times underline the human tragedy, name-checked at the wedding by the explanation that the Jewish tradition of breaking a glass represents "the fragility of human joy."
From an objective standpoint, Winterbottom does justice to the story, and Jolie's performance is superficially impressive. But there's something perfunctory about the film, as if the artists reasoned, "If we don't tell this story, someone else will, and less respectfully." Despite the upscale, rigorous treatment, A Mighty Heart is a docudramatic TV movie at heart, and there's something unseemly about the film's inherently predictable build to Pearl's climactic grief.
[For Groucho's interview with Michael Winterbottom, click here.]
Paramount brings A Mighty Heart home in its Blu-ray debut, and given the HD-Cam source, it looks mighty good. An improvement over the DVD edition, the image is still limited in shadow detail but at times (especially in daylight) the image delivers substantive depth. Generally speaking, the film looks fine, and the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 sound is certainly up to the task of preserving the theatrical surround experience.
Extras are slim, but everything from DVD makes its way here, beginning with the solid featurette "A Journey of Passion: The Making of A Mighty Heart" (30:03, SD). Along with behind-the-scenes footage, we get talking heads Angelina Jolie, Michael Winterbottom, Dan Futterman, Archie Panjabi, Irrfan Khan, Will Patton, and Mariane Pearl (archival).
"Public Service Announcement--Pearl Foundation--with Christiane Amanpour" (2:08, SD) is self-explanatory, while "Committee to Protect Journalists" (8:40) intriguingly explores the work of that organization through interviews with CPI chairman and Wall Street Journal editor-at-large Paul Steiger and CPI executive director Joel Simon.
Last up is the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:33, HD).
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