“A Mighty Heart,” directed by Michael Winterbottom, dramatizes the 2002 abduction and killing of journalist Daniel Pearl and the attempt of his wife, Mariane, to find him. Although we know the outcome of this horror story, the film isn’t a predictable downer. With Winterbottom’s bleakness gene, humanist palette, aversion to falsity and sense of urgency working in ideal sync, it’s a realistic sparkler.
Set in what looks like Karachi, Pakistan, the film mixes fact with respectful speculation to chronicle the Pearl ordeal, beginning when the Wall Street Journal reporter Pearl (Dan Futterman) disappears as he’s preparing to meet a source with possible links to “shoe bomber” Richard Reid. It ends five weeks later, with the acquisition of a videotape showing Pearl’s beheading by jihadists.
Angelina Jolie, in actor rather than movie-star mode, plays Pearl’s pregnant journalist wife who anchors the search for Daniel Pearl. Additional players include an Indian colleague (Archie Panjabi), a Pakistani police officer (Irrfan Khan), and Daniel Pearl’s Wall Street Journal editor (Denis O’Hare).
As a procedural, the film can get bogged down. Winterbottom, perhaps trying too hard to honor his source material — Mariane Pearl’s book (adapted by John Orloff) — piles on minor characters, e-mails and background details.
But the film has atmosphere, a thrust and a point. And these elements, enhanced by Jolie’s in-character performance and by the omnipresence of the peace and courage message of the woman Jolie’s playing, add up to both an affecting personal tragedy and a big-picture look at conditions that breed terrorism.
Winterbottom, who, in fare ranging from his Thomas Hardy adaptations to “In This World,” has long made bleakness stirring. Here he engrosses viewers in a forest of dread and uncertainty using snippets of everything from India-Pakistan antagonism to government-sanctioned torture to illustrate the human effects of eons of animosity. Yet flashbacks of happier times make the movie easier to watch. The film also scores as a reminder of the risks journalists take.
Jolie, meanwhile, sporting a distinctive accent (French-bred Mariane Pearl is of Afro-Cuban and Dutch descent), plays Mariane Pearl as (save for one piercing scream) an unemotional, savvy, no-nonsense woman and a truth-seeking journalist. She won’t let terrorists terrorize her, the real-life Mariane Pearl has said, and Jolie, without her familiar juiciness, conveys this defiance soberly, but powerfully, from deep down.
Credibility continues through the perfect final image. Rather than presenting Jolie in luminous close-up, Winterbottom gives us Mariane Pearl, filmed from behind, walking with her son toward a both concrete and symbolic horizon.
A Mighty Heart ***½
Starring Angelina Jolie, Dan Futterman, Archie Panjabi, Irrfan Khan
Written by John Orloff, based on the book by Mariane Pearl
Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes