A Mighty Heart

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            Filming the story of the kidnapping and gruesome murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was a daunting challenge. Easy to politicize, easy to over dramatize, easy to insult the awful reality. Director Michael Winterbottom, his cast, and his crew have done it the hard way: they did everything right. “A Mighty Heart” succeeds on every level.

            Hewing closely to Mariane Pearl’s book “A Mighty Heart: The Brave Life and Death of My Husband, Danny Pearl,” Winterbottom avoids fictionalizing the truth by working in an understated documentary style. The movie is filmed on a dead run in unrelenting urgency as the searchers who have gathered around Mariane Pearl work against the terrorists’ deadline.

            Set in the chaos of Karachi, the film is tense and confusing. The streets are packed with cars, people, and animals with little or no space for any of them to move. The din is constant. Inside the Pearls’ house, the group that gathers to search for Danny is equally bewildering, and it is nearly impossible to cut through the confusion to get to know them. They are American diplomats, Wall Street Journal executives, the FBI, the Pakistani police and colleagues of Mariane and Danny Pearl. In their search, they tangle in one way or another with Pakistanis, Indians, terrorists and an unfathomable mixture of religions and ethnicities. The director’s deliberate chaos is a brilliant underlining of the extraordinary complexity of the Middle East.

            It is a world of treachery and intrigue that the searchers simply cannot navigate. Imagine if NY, NJ, DE, and CT all had competing cultures and divergent histories rooted in centuries of hatred. Can any American grasp the cultural roots and landscape of these countries enough to understand their past and present, much less their future? It is the unidentifiable underbelly of that world that stole Danny Pearl’s life, and they did it because he was an American.

            Speaking in the Cuban/French accent of Mariane Pearl, Angelina Jolie is entirely consistent and comfortable with it, and therefore so are we. If Jolie’s natural elegance and calm make her stand out, it is her obvious intelligence that makes her portrayal so credible. Without a hint of overacting, she plays the loving, pregnant wife of Danny Pearl with grace and does it so convincingly that we trust her presentation of Mariane entirely. That is certainly the great gift an actor can give an audience. It is largely this performance that gives the movie its real world, unscripted feel. It’s time to stop confusing the off screen celebrity with the deeply accomplished actress of this film.

            Daniel Winterbottom has told us Danny Pearl’s story without once stepping into the minefield of potential flaws attending the real life drama of the story. When it is over we are awash in authenticity, very sad, but also extremely appreciative of the collective effort. A film that must have seemed impossible to make has become a truly fine one.


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