A Mighty Heart / Agent Bedhead
Film Reviews | June 22, 2007 | Comments ()
A Mighty Heart is a docudrama about the grim days and weeks that follow the kidnapping of American journalist Daniel Pearl by Islamic militants. Both husband and wife reported on the war in Afghanistan and, in its aftermath, continued their work in the neighboring country of Pakistan. In the film’s opening moments, Daniel (Dan Futterman) and wife Mariane (Angelina Jolie) look forward to the next day, when they are planning to leave the Pakistani city of Karachi, which Jolie’s rather inauspicious voiceover refers to as a place where “there are so many people that they don’t know how to count them.” On that ill-fated morning, Daniel leaves to interview a sketchy source linked to shoe bomber Richard Reid and misses their farewell dinner party. As the film’s audience knows, Daniel would never return, but director Michael Winterbottom still manages to sweep us up within the relatively brisk narrative that carries us toward the very ending we bleakly anticipate.
The film’s story, adapted from Mariane’s journals, offers an engrossing peek at the inner circle working to rescue Pearl. At the time of the kidnapping, the Pearls were staying with friend Asra Nomani (Archie Panjabi) in her heavily guarded home, which later became headquarters for the search. The tedious weeks are filled with dread as whiteboards are quickly crammed and erased with the names of suspected terrorists and phone records are traced ad nauseum, while internet aliases and confidentiality laws repeatedly frustrate the process.
The investigation is led by a local counterterrorism squad helmed by Captain (Irfan Khan) and joined by a few of Daniel’s colleagues from The Wall Street Journal. Throughout the ordeal, the director juxtaposes the ubiquitous presence of modern technology with realistic details of the extreme poverty of Karachi and its surrounding slums. The shots of city streets show an endless swarm of cars, people, and an impending sense of doom. Yet in this sea of unrecognizable faces, technology pulses through the slums filled with muddy concrete blocks and throwaway tents where electricity and internet connections abound. The constant presence and immediacy of technology and the internet aid the investigation, but they also play a role in Daniel’s entrapment.
Although the story of Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping and the subsequent pursuit of his captors could easily have been dismissed as sentimental or overly political, Winterbottom not only fashions a compelling narrative, he extracts power from realism. The film avoids gratuitous detail out of respect for Pearl’s family, but the irony is not lost that the investigation of a journalist’s disappearance is largely undermined by the sensationalism of journalism itself. In addition to roadblocks placed by the terrorists, the inept journalists who covered the story contributed to the search’s sad spectacle — from the unverified anonymous tips taken as fact and reported on an international scale to the jackass television interviewer who asked Mariane whether she had viewed the video of her husband’s decapitation. An endless portrayal of the scene outside Asra’s home shows a thick net of reporters hungry for blood. Through it all, the outwardly collected and startlingly rational Mariane maintains hope until she is told, finally, that her husband is dead.
It’s a damn shame that Mariane’s remarkable character is overshadowed by the presence of Angelina Jolie, who is distracting despite the artfully placed wig of corkscrew curls, slightly darkened skin, and carefully arranged French/Afro-Cuban/Dutch accent. There is some irony in casting the tabloids’ leading lady in a film that seems to deplore sensationalism. It’s not to say that Jolie can’t act (see, e.g., Girl, Interupted, and “Gia”), it’s just that now she’s usually the stuff of big-budget action flicks (Tomb Raider, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) rather than modestly financed films that focus on story instead of her well-padded breasts. Though Jolie recently articulated her desire to be remembered not as a tabloid star but as someone who could affect lives and change the world, despite her best efforts, her stature undermines the film’s power. The focus of A Mighty Heart should’ve been on Daniel Pearl, and while Jolie’s notoriety does bring a few extra eyes to the cause, whether intentioned or not, her stardom and oversized lips distract from the film’s otherwise riveting real-life vision.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma and tries to avoid reality at all costs. She also insults pop culture daily at agentbedhead.com.