Story Highlights• "A Mighty Heart" is based on Mariane Pearl's memoir
• It's a breathless account of Daniel Pearl's abduction
• It was produced by Brad Pitt and stars Angelina Jolie
• Jolie's restrained, unshowy performance hits the right notes
By Tom Charity
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(CNN) -- Daniel Pearl flew in to Islamabad, Pakistan, on September 12, 2001. As the South Asia bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, he would spend the next four months reporting on Afghanistan and Operation Enduring Freedom.
He and his pregnant wife, Mariane, a reporter for French public radio, celebrated the New Year in the sprawling city of Karachi, Pakistan, a nexus for gunrunners and drug-smugglers; dirt poor and decidedly dangerous.
The evening of January 23, the last day of his assignment, Danny Pearl went to interview Sheik Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani. He never returned.
Produced by Brad Pitt and starring Angelina Jolie, "A Mighty Heart" is based on Mariane Pearl's memoir of the same name. It's a breathless account of the events of that January day and the nightmarish five weeks that followed, as U.S. intelligence and Pakistan's counterterrorist agency hunted the kidnappers.
Give the tabloids' favorite celebrity couple some credit: This is hardly a conventional star vehicle. Several months pregnant and essentially a passive figure in the drama, Mariane scarcely leaves her friend Asra's house, save for an infuriatingly unproductive meeting with a local government minister and an interview with CNN.
The large, gated home becomes the unofficial command center for the search and rescue operation, manned by Asra (Archie Panjabi); the Journal's foreign editor, John Bussey (Denis O'Hare); Randall Bennett (Will Patton) from the U.S. consulate; and Pakistan CID's "Captain" (Irfan Khan -- the Bollywood star from "The Namesake").
Set in the very eye of the War on Terror, this is necessarily a grim and painful movie, but the tense, raw alliance of reporters and public officials from three continents has us hoping against hope for a breakthrough. We might discern one too, in their shared concern for Mariane and her baby.
Famously prolific and congenitally unsentimental, British director Michael Winterbottom is at his weakest supplying rote flashbacks to the Pearls' loving marriage. The movie is much more convincing when it sticks with place and process and lets the emotions take care of themselves.
This is the third nonfiction drama Winterbottom has made in Pakistan since September 11, but it's the first that feels like the work of an outsider. (The others were "In This World" and "The Road to Guantanamo".)
It's an authentically jumbled snapshot of the impenetrable, overwhelming poverty of a Third World slum city (exteriors were shot in Karachi, the house scenes in India). Few shots last more than a couple of seconds, and most are punctuated with the clamor of horns and brakes. As dusk falls, it really does feel like we're encroaching on some dark heart.
The movie's clipped procedural mode hots up as the authorities begin to connect the dots -- or rather the cell numbers and Internet service providers. In the most troubling sequence, with time running out, Captain tortures a suspect. The information he extracts is valuable but the effort is ultimately futile. Were his actions justified? Winterbottom doesn't exactly suppress the question, but he doesn't let it detain him either. That's the privilege but also the handicap of such a committed neutral observer.
Jolie has attracted some negative comment for playing the dark-skinned French (Dutch-Afro-Cuban-Chinese) journalist, but whatever you think of the casting, her restrained, unshowy performance and soft, subtle accent hit the right notes: Mariane, a practicing Buddhist, is smart and articulate, resolute in her convictions even as she is pushed to her very limits.
Her grief erupts in one heart-rending sequence, but it's her dignity and empathy that stay with you -- the adamant refusal to surrender her compassion. This kind of heroism is worth celebrating.
Angelina Jolie plays pregnant Mariane Pearl, the wife of journalist Daniel Pearl.
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