A Mighty Heart" takes as its subject the events surrounding the 2002 abduction and videotaped execution of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman). He was in Pakistan at the time, seeking an interview with the man whose teachings were revered by shoe-bomber Richard Reid.
For many readers, this is appalling territory they may not want to explore again. But English director Michael Winterbottom's previous films "Welcome to Sarajevo" (1977) and "The Road to Guantanamo" (2006) serve as formidable credentials for bringing a story like this one to the screen. Winterbottom has fashioned a tough, pitilessly honest account of the tragedy. "Heart" enlightens, even as it challenges any hopes that the conflicts it depicts will be solved in our time.
The film plunges us with disquieting speed into the religious, political, and social maelstrom of Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, in the months following the fall of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. We begin on the day of the kidnapping, following Pearl's jittery preparations for the bogus interview that lured him to his death. It's characteristic of Winterbottom's narrative style that we do not witness the abduction itself. Pearl just slips away from the camera. The film manages to lay smoke even around events we think we know well.
When Pearl fails to return, his wife, Mariane (Angelina Jolie, radiant and hard as nails), sets in motion the official machinery. The U.S. consulate is memorably embodied here by Will Patton, playing a foreign officer of solid capacities and doubtful motivation. Irfan Khan portrays a super-competent investigator for the Pakistani police whom everyone calls Captain. From that point on, the film oscillates between a frantic police procedural as the Captain tracks down the abductors, and Mariane's vigil, in which she is supported by a colleague from India (Archi Panjabi) and "Journal" editor John Bussey (Denis O'Hare).
As depicted in "A Mighty Heart," Karachi often seems a cauldron of disorder and despair "Midnight Express" on a municipal scale. Before one has adjusted to Winterbottom's methods, the welter of information the false names, rival sects, dead-end leads, mountainous phone records makes us wonder if he's bitten off more than he can chew. But the film's evident moral urgency demands an insistence on murk and confusion as the prime factors in everything surrounding the War on Terror.
The film, of course, has us rooting for the Captain, but our loyalty is complicated by his eerily calm questioning of a suspect strung up by his wrists while police do something to his lower body, below the frame. Riding shotgun with the Captain as he rounds up potential informants with scant regard for the niceties of civil rights, Patton's character, hungry for vengeance, enthuses, "I love this town."
The movie's treatment of politics likewise induces vertigo. The abduction occurs shortly after the Journal hands over a reporter's computer to the CIA an act Bussey defends, but which at least makes sense of jihadists' willingness to treat journalists as spies. The abductors' public pronouncements call for a revival of Pakistan's independence from other nations as well as for improved conditions for prisoners at Guantanamo. So when the film shows us news clips of President Musharraf echoing Colin Powell's talking points, and of Powell standing up for the treatment of foreign detainees, we experience a fresh wave of disorientation.
The signal achievement of "A Mighty Heart," somewhat at odds with its affirmative title, is the sense it creates of universal complicity.
It's almost with relief that we turn to Mariane's story. Dreadful as it is, we're in no doubt about how to feel about it. These sequences depend on Jolie's performance, and it is riveting, superbly recreating the strength, forbearance and devotion with which the real Mariane Pearl astonished the world.
When she concludes a televised plea to the kidnappers to release her husband by affirming her love for him, Jolie gives her simple lines an indelible reading. Although Mariane Pearl intended the title of her memoir as a tribute to her husband, audiences will with justice assume it is the filmmakers' homage to her.
As "A Mighty Heart" shows, suffering and bereavement are everywhere the same. Can recognition of these great, sad solidarities overcome fanaticism, fear, ignorance, injustice? This determinedly unsentimental film gives us little reason to suppose so. (R) 100 min. S