Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart is in the inauspicious position of having the decked stacked against it. Since the film is based on the events surrounding the kidnapping of American journalist Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman, Enough) in Pakistan in 2002, the widespread media coverage of the event means that most viewers will already know the film’s outcome.
This isn’t necessarily the death knell for a film that fancies itself as a political thriller, as long as the director is able to keep the tension up. Winterbottom is able to accomplish this for a bit, using every trick he knows to keep the film’s pace quick and frantic as we come to Daniel’s kidnapping. The problem, however, is that we are never given a chance to really get to know or care about any of the film’s characters. Sure, there are a few flashbacks to times shared by Daniel and his wife, Mariane (Angelina Jolie), but establishing the love between them is handled more as an afterthought. The audience is just supposed to know and accept that the couple loves one another, as opposed to this actually being shown on-screen. Given no reason to possess genuine interest in these characters, we’re instead left slogging through a lot of complicated, convoluted Mideast politics towards an ending that everyone knows is coming.
The events of the film are seen through Mariane’s eyes, who in real life wrote the book on which the movie is based. Jolie, who has been able to make a career off of reputation, persona and publicity more so than from having an actual track record as an actress, is solid throughout, though her supposedly French accent sounds more like the pseudo-Transylvanian brogue she adopted in Alexander (2004). She’s also not helped by one of the most purely obnoxious Oscar moments in film, a scene that was obviously meant to be cathartic and unsettling, but ends up feeling overwrought and distracting.
There are numerous opportunities to take advantage of the film’s subject matter and address some of the issues inherent in it, but many of the questions which could have been raised are instead ignored. For instance, despite the film’s own admission that 10 Pakistanis were killed due to terrorism in the time that Daniel was being held captive, no one in the film ever questions why so much time, money and resources are used in order to find one American. Not to say that those resources should’ve been rejected, but rather the film, through its own footage of Karachi, often inadvertently paints a portrait of wealthy, affluent Americans in a country of impoverished Pakistanis, something I am sure was not intended. The film also touches on the treatment of the detainees at Guantánamo, but then there is never an objection raised, let alone the morality questioned of Pakistani officials torturing prisoners in order to find out Daniel’s whereabouts.
There are a couple of instances when the film shows glimpses of what it could have been, such as the borderline unsettling interrogation of Omar (Aly Khan, Nazar) or the film’s climax, which nearly makes up for the lack of emotional resonance through much of the rest of the movie. However, these scenes never quite materialize, and remain near misses.
A Mighty Heart will rank much higher with people who followed or are still interested in the story of Daniel and Mariane Pearl, or for anyone with a curiosity towards Mideast politics. However, as filmmaking, it remains well-intentioned, but ultimately lacking. Rated R for language.