On so many levels, "A Mighty Heart" is almost as excruciating to write about as it is to watch. It has many of the virtues of a first-rate political thriller, and yet who can think of it in those terms?
Based on the memoir of his widow, Mariane Pearl, it's about the 2002 kidnapping of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and the five-week hunt for the Islamist terrorists who would prove to be his killers.
Danny, played by actor and "Capote" screenwriter Dan Futterman, is first introduced to us in Karachi, Pakistan, where he is running down a story about would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid. Recently arrived from Afghanistan, where both he and the pregnant Mariane, played by Angelina Jolie, were covering the post-9/11 US bombings, Danny is quickly lured into a treacherous endgame with his captors.
The brief shot of him waving goodbye to Mariane as he gets into a cab is ominous in the extreme. From that point on, except for a few subsequent moments with Danny on his fated rounds, and a couple of flash backs to his wedding day and marital bliss, we never see him again. His absence is the movie's strongest presence.
As with Mariane, and the expanding circle of advisers and friends who attempt to locate Danny, we are put in the harrowing position of ferreting out the facts of his disappearance piece by piece. We, unlike the protagonists, know the outcome, which adds an extra layer of despair.
Directed with tense docudrama exactness by Michael Winterbottom, from a screenplay by John Orloff, "A Mighty Heart" is, in one sense, an anatomy of how people under extreme duress keep the faith. When Danny's parents, after reports that he has gone missing, hear the news that he has been kidnapped, they are jubilant. It means he's alive. When Mariane sees the video of Danny as a captive, she reads defiance in his body language.
Interviewed on television, Mariane is asked what message she would like to send Danny and without hesitation, she says, "I love you." The romance between them is among the most quietly believable depictions of ardor that I have ever seen in a movie. Before he is kidnapped, we see Danny fooling with his very pregnant wife, or talking shop with dinner friends, and we recognize immediately the emotional honesty that is the armature of their love. Honesty is also at the heart of their passion for reporting. (Although it presents obvious dangers in his line of work, Danny is always forthcoming about being Jewish.)
The Pearls' shared devotion to the cause of journalistic truth is what sets this movie apart from so many other movies about reporters in war zones, even great ones, like "Under Fire." Is it more dangerous now to be a reporter than at any other time in history? Probably not, and it would be another form of romanticism to think so, but it may seem like the stakes are higher now, and the methods of subterfuge ever more Byzantine.
The search for Danny in "A Mighty Heart" is accomplished mostly through high-tech skullduggery, and it leads to the inescapable conclusion that, as individuals, our survival or obliteration is dependant on how wired we are into the world.
With her belly protruding and her hair piled high, Jolie completely absorbs herself in the role. Raised in France and of Afro-Cuban and Dutch descent, Mariane is worldly in the best sense – she gains sustenance from the differentness of her life experiences.
"A Mighty Heart" puts great store in Mariane's spiritual composure, and this is the only part of the movie that seems insufficient to me. Her yowls of rage and disbelief when she hears the news of Danny's execution soon give way to a kind of transcendence. Her articulation of sorrow is glossed over and she becomes a paragon of how to rise above grief.
Winterbottom wants us to see Mariane as a champion of the soul and a shining example of how to survive these parlous times. But the emotional effect of "A Mighty Heart" is too tangled and inchoate for such easy uplift. The movie's power diminishes its conclusion. Grade: A
• Rated R for language.