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A Mighty Heart

The bravery of Mariane Pearl is something to salute - as is Angelina Jolie's performance - in Michael Winterbottom's new film

Published on September 24th 2007.

A Mighty Heart

In January 2002 Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped in Pakistan, held hostage and killed. Michael Winterbottom's A Mighty Heart is adapted from the book of the same name by Pearl’s wife, Mariane, a French-Cuban journalist who was six months pregnant at the time of his abduction.

In this instance, perhaps the best accolade you pay an actress who appears with such frequency in the tabloids is that you easily forget it is her

The film opens with a voice-over by Mariane (Angelina Jolie). The couple had been reporting on the war in Afghanistan and were one day away from leaving Pakistan but had stopped off in Karachi while Daniel Pearl followed up a final interview in his investigation of the shoe-bomberRichard Reid.

Karachi is one of the largest cities in the world. “How” Mariane asks, “do you find one man among all these?” It’s a leading question, seeming to refer not only to the cleric Sheikh Gilani, who her husband was hoping to meet, but also to the eventual hunt for Daniel himself.

A Mighty Heart appears fast edited, shot in a jerky, documentary style. As we watch Pearl make his way to his arranged meeting point, we follow Mariane as she goes shopping and witness the hectic nature of Karachi – the cacophony of sounds, the swarms of people, the erratic, alarming surges of traffic. By the time Pearl has failed to come home that evening, the sense of nervousness the film has skilfully evoked has deepened into a greater dread.

The search for Pearl gets under way and, like the city itself, it is messy, chaotic and confused: this is "real life", Winterbottom takes pains to remind us, not a Hollywood thriller. There are several flashbacks of the journalist’s actions during that day and evening but soon these stop and eventually all we see of Pearl are the images which come through from his kidnappers, in which he is handcuffed with a gun to his head.

A Mighty Heart is reminiscent of Paul Greengrass’ United 93, not because it deals with a brutal act of terrorism but because it seeks to recreate, for the audience, the shock, fear and hope of the search for Daniel Pearl, even while they realise the ending can never be altered.

It draws us into an investigation that seems a web of obstacles and possibilities, but which eventually narrows in on the kidnappers. It also allows us to stand alongside Pearl’s wife who is strong throughout the ordeal, determined not to give up hope.

The film has just a hint of the tension of a movie-thriller as the investigation shifts towards its climax and the captain (Irfan Khan) and his team expose the plot which was set up to capture Pearl.
By now many minutes have passed without seeing Pearl onscreen - the director strategically withholding any further flashbacks –and so when a montage of images from the couple’s life together fills the screen it packs a huge emotional punch. So too does the moment when Mariane hears the news which forces her to let go of her hope.

Jolie is outstanding in this film. In this instance, perhaps the best accolade you pay an actress, who appears with such frequency in the tabloids, is that you easily forget it is her. Dan Futterman as Daniel Pearl is also brilliant as the journalist who was doing his job in the best way he knew how and Irfan Khan stands out as the Pakistani investigator determined to bring Daniel home.

There will be lots of discussion about the politics behind the real life events but perhaps the most surprising and uplifting thing about the film is that, despite the circumstances in which Daniel Pearl was murdered, the message of A Mighty Heart is anti-fear and anti-hatred.

It rises above the questions about terrorism to suggest - a brave position, rather than a popular one - that the only thing that will ultimately make a difference is love.8/10

Nicola Mostyn

A Mighty Heart is on general release.

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