The sad saga of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl has made it to the bigscreen with facts, figures and beating heart intact in “A Mighty Heart.” In his first studio venture, Michael Winterbottom coaxes forth a staggering wealth of detail from this terse, methodical account of Pearl’s kidnapping and murder in Pakistan, seen through the eyes of those who sought his return. Given audiences’ resistance to films dealing with 9/11 and its aftermath, soberly restrained pic reps a mighty tough sell, though Angelina Jolie’s performance as Pearl’s widow should broaden prospects for the June 22 Stateside release.
Adapting Mariane Pearl’s harrowing memoir, director Winterbottom, who previously ventured into Mideast politics with “In This World” and “The Road to Guantanamo,” proves to be just the man for the task. Though the prolific British chameleon isn’t one to make the same film twice, his gifts for docudrama storytelling — an ability to shepherd complicated narratives, avoiding every opportunity for sensationalism in favor of a low-key mounting dread — couldn’t be better suited to the material.
Having covered the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks, the Pearls were working as journalists in Karachi, Pakistan, on Jan. 23, 2002 — the day Danny (“Capote” scribe Dan Futterman), chasing a story about foiled shoe bomber Richard Reid, got into a cab and never returned. Sticking close to the very pregnant Mariane (Jolie), pic recounts the restless five-week search for the man’s whereabouts and his kidnappers’ identities, all accompanied by a hailstorm of media attention.
Screenplay crisply diagrams the labyrinth of false leads and fruitless interrogations with various middlemen Danny may have had contact with on the night of his disappearance. Suspicion ultimately comes to rest on the elusive Omar Saeed Sheikh (Alyy Khan), a known Islamic militant with a history of kidnapping foreigners.
Like his fellow suspects, Sheikh is seen only briefly, and in the most objective possible light. Working in the brisk, discursive style of a police procedural, Winterbottom scrupulously follows the rescue effort, step by agonizing step — ensuring that the audience is never given additional information despite its foreknowledge of the tragic outcome. Even larger political questions — the implications, say, of a scene in which a Pakistani suspect is strung up and interrogated, or the grim irony of a journalist couple facing intense media scrutiny — are subjugated to the flow of the storytelling.
Along the way, pic also manages to sketch vivid portraits of Mariane’s key supporters and allies. These include Danny’s tough-minded colleague, Asra Nomani (Archie Panjabi); a local cop (Irrfan Khan), known simply as Captain, determined not to let the case soil Pakistan’s reputation; American diplomatic security agent Randall Bennett (Will Patton), who tends to see the silver lining in all bad news; and Wall Street Journal higher-up John Bussey (Denis O’Hare), who arrives in Pakistan after news of the ordeal, a comforting but resilient figure.
But this is ultimately — and very intimately — Mariane Pearl’s story, and much of it rests on Jolie, who fits comfortably into the naturalistic mold that shapes the entire ensemble. Though Jolie sports a big belly, a high-coiffed hairstyle and a very challenging accent (raised in France, Mariane is of Afro-Cuban and Dutch descent), this isn’t the sort of commanding star turn in which the performer vanishes behind a well-known celebrity mask, but rather a subdued, carefully considered portrait of a woman caught between premature grief and persistent hope.
Jolie plays Mariane as sharp and prickly, but also highly principled and completely devoted to her husband. Wisely, Winterbottom opts to shoot her more high-pitched outbursts from a distance or in near-darkness, as if refusing to milk more histrionics than necessary.
Occasional subdued flashbacks to happier days from Mariane and Danny’s marriage, including a very brief love scene, add emotional texture even as they take something away from the film’s otherwise unsentimental approach.
Pic negotiates its way around another potential landmine — to show or not to show the widely circulated video of Pearl’s murder — re-creating a very brief, non-graphic snippet of the contentious footage and getting the facts across with the utmost restraint.
Shot on location in Pakistan, India and France, the film gains considerable authenticity and momentum from its handheld HD lensing by Winterbottom’s regular d.p., Marcel Zyskind, and Peter Christelis’ rapid editing, rarely allowing a shot to last more than a few seconds.