A Mighty Heart

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Of the two powerful presences in A Mighty Heart, only one gets star billing: I'm talking, of course, about Angelina Jolie. She gives a fierce and astute performance as Mariane Pearl, the wife of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was abducted and murdered by al Qaeda operatives in Karachi five years ago. The other presence is the city itself – vast, throbbing with life, teeming with misery and, as depicted here, all but unfathomable to Westerners trying to penetrate its secrets. This is a smart and serious film, however much it may also function as a star vehicle. The director, Michael Winterbottom, working from a script by John Orloff, has turned Mariane Pearl's memoir into a relentlessly intense drama about the search for her husband, as well as her search for meaning in his death.

Mariane is a journalist herself, and she was six months pregnant at the time. Jolie plays her as a wife who loves her husband passionately, but a woman with no time for the niceties of behavior once it's clear he's been taken prisoner. At that point she becomes an obsessive organizer of the search, and the bane of anyone who stands in her way. Given Angelina Jolie's celebrity, the obvious danger in such a take-no-prisoners style of acting was imposing herself on the real-life story, but that hasn't happened. To the contrary, the actress enters the character and stays there, even during her feral cries in the film's most harrowing scene.

Daniel Pearl is played by Dan Futterman. I didn't know Danny, so all I can say about Futterman's performance is that it, and his physical resemblance to his character, seem persuasive. But Danny's character seems persuasive too – not a hero of the war on terror, as some have sought to cast him, and certainly not the incautious naïf that others have thought him to be, but a first-rate reporter of maturity, reflexive decency, insatiable curiosity, reasonable prudence and unreasonable dedication to finding the truth of whatever story he might have been working on.

Against most Hollywood odds, Danny Pearl's tragically truncated life story has fallen into good hands, thanks to the film's producers (first among them Brad Pitt) and to the filmmaker they entrusted with the production. For much of the past decade Michael Winterbottom, who was born in England, has been refining his agile style in such films as Welcome to Sarajevo and In This World, films that integrate drama and documentary footage, mix professional with non-professional actors and yield a sense of place that's as vivid as anything seen on TV news.

On one occasion the stylist stumbled. Last year's The Road To Guantanamo was long on immediacy but short on factuality. And one aspect of the technique here amounts to tacit editorial comment. By using oppressive close-ups, quick cuts, film noir peeks into labyrinthine neighborhoods and long lenses that compress the confusion of Karachi's streets into pandemonium, the director and his colleagues have made the city seem endlessly menacing. I wonder what would the same locales would have looked like if they'd been shot by a Third-World filmmaker.

Yet the film's point of view is inevitably that of an outsider, which Danny Pearl was, and menace is the essence of this shattering story, which has been told with skill and urgent conviction. Where there is misery, the movie wants us to know, terrorism will rise and flourish. A Mighty Heart makes the terms of the terrorist threat palpable.