Over the past few years, director Michael Winterbottom's leapt from genre to genre with a far-ranging deftness where the distance of the jumps is matched only by the agility of the landings. He's given us rollicking rock-and-roll comedy (24 Hour Party People), innovative literary adaptations (Jude, The Claim, Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story), partially-baked sci-fi (Code 46), art-house sexuality (9 Songs), gripping documentary (The Road to Guantanamo) and more -- and quietly putting together a filmography whose scope and quality put him near Steven Soderbergh's level of production and excellence. A Mighty Heart, playing outside of competition here at Cannes, sees him working with his biggest star to date -- Angelina Jolie -- and turning a true story into a compelling, intellectually and emotionally engaging film that may take him from the art house to the mainstream.
A Mighty Heart is adapted from the memoirs of journalist Mariane Pearl (Jolie), who was posted, along with her Wall Street Journal reporter husband Daniel (Dan Futterman), to Karachi Pakistan, in the wake of 9/11. In 2002, the Pearls were literally one day away from leaving Karachi when Daniel had one last interview to conduct -- a tentative meeting with an elusive subject. He left as his wife was preparing a farewell dinner with their friends in the area. He never returned.
Part of A Mighty Heart is a police procedural played out on the global stage, as U.S. personnel (led by Will Patton's Randall Bennett) and Pakistani authorities (led by Irrfan Khan's character, known simply as 'Captain') scour Karachi's backstreets and secret places, trying to find the extremists who have kidnapped Daniel. On the home front, Mariane worked her own connections and sources along with her husband's Wall Street Journal peers (Asra Nomian's Archie Panjabi) and superiors (Denis O'Hare's John Bussey). It's hard to imagine anyone who doesn't know how this story ends -- Pearl was executed, as captured on a notorious videotape, weeks after his abduction -- and that pall of certainty hangs over all of the character's efforts and struggles. We know this ends in death; at the same time, the frustration, panic and worry captured on screen show that the real people involved at the time knew that was a possibility from the instant Daniel Pearl didn't come home.
If one thing elevates A Mighty Heart above ripped-from-the-headlines melodrama -- and you shudder to think what a less-talented director could have done with this material -- it's Winterbottom's insistence of shooting in Karachi and incorporating a real sense of place into every frame of the film. Karachi's a sprawling, squalid metropolis -- cluttered streets and grinding poverty -- and its role as a crossroads in the war on terror, and a crossroads for the war terror wages against the world, hums and thrums throughout every scene.
The supporting cast is all excellent, but special praise has to go to Khan and Futterman. Khan's character is the head of the new Pakistani anti-terrorism unit, and he's a man torn between the public pronouncements of support for the West's initiatives and the labyrinthine power-struggles of his government and massive public support for radical Islamic action. The Captain is the face of a new kind of power in Pakistan, and Khan's every line, every motion has the coiled power of a punch about to land, even in stillness. Futterman's challenge in portraying Pearl is trickier -- after the initial sequences of the film we only see him in flashback or in photos and video -- but Futterman still makes Pearl come alive for us as a husband, a lover, a son, a journalist.
Jolie's portrayal of Pearl -- who was six months pregnant when her husband was abducted -- has been the subject of some controversy due to some mild cosmetic elements -- her hair is curlier, her skin slightly darkened to convey the real Mariane Pearl's Cuban-French heritage -- but there's nothing insensitive or overdone in the mild make-up artistry of the part; the inner performance is what shines out. Jolie's Pearl may feel fear, but never hate -- and her public face of grace and calm is one part humanism, one part strategy. She's deliberately trying not to provoke the men who hold her husband captive -- and she also truly believes that peace and justice are the ultimate weapons against those who would kill and maim in the name of God. Asked about Karachi's role as a cultivator of terrorism, Marianne's reply is fast, smart and sincere: "Wherever there is misery, they find people."
But Jolie's Mariane Pearl isn't some plaster secular saint, either; when the inevitable end to the story comes crashing down, her howling, devastated grief ripples off the screen with brute force and power. (And frankly, the make-up artistry in the film re-contextualizes Jolie's well-publicized features in a way that lets her simply act to a degree she hasn't been able to in years.) John Orloff's scrrenplay adaptation of Mariane Pearl's book is strong, but it's Winterbottom style and choices -- location shooting, a fluid sense of time, a run-and-gun approach to scenes -- that make A Mighty Heart stand out as more than just a tragedy. The Cannes production notes for A Mighty Heart point out that in the five years since Daniel Pearl's brutal murder, nearly 230 other journalists have been killed on the job through out the world. A Mighty Heart shows us the death of one man, but it also demonstrates how the forces that would destroy us despise the truth itself -- and how killing those who try to bring truth to the world through a free press is a cornerstone of terror's brutish, ignorant war against civilization itself.