Wish though we might for another option, we know the terrible ending of A Mighty Heart before the movie begins. While investigating a story in Karachi, Pakistan, on ”shoe bomber” Richard Reid in early 2002, Wall Street Journal reporter and South Asia bureau chief Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and murdered, and his beheading was documented on camera with sickening cruelty of purpose. Pearl’s wife, Mariane, herself a freelance journalist for French radio and television, was pregnant at the time, and after her husband’s death, she wrote a book about his life and work — and their happy time together — with the couple’s son, Adam, in mind. If today even strangers refer to the Pearls as Danny and Mariane, it is because, through the intimate accessibility of her prose and the fresh glamour of their photogenic images, Mariane Pearl has succeeded so well in personalizing the dangers that accompany the necessity of a free press. Scores more journalists have since died in the line of duty.
The shaping and shading that turned Mariane’s book, subtitled The Brave Life and Death of My Husband, Danny Pearl, into A Mighty Heart, the noble project starring Angelina Jolie, qualifies in itself, I suppose, as a kind of media success. This respectful, committed, on-the-side-of-right dramatization got made because it stars one of today’s most headline-grabbing actress-celebrities. (As a promotional bonus, Jolie’s equally eye-catching partner, Brad Pitt, is one of the producers.) And because Michael Winterbottom directed, drawing on his blunter global docudrama style (The Road to Guantánamo) rather than his fanciful playtime style (Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story), the movie strides ahead with a good sense of rhythm, rocking backward just when relief is needed to create vignettes of happier moments in the Pearls’ life as an attractive couple to offset the despair of the present and horror of the future. (We know it’s coming; thank goodness we’re spared the full documentation.)
But because A Mighty Heart stars Jolie — her skin somehow polished to reflect Mariane’s Afro-Cuban/Dutch complexion, her wig a masterpiece of a casually corkscrewed updo, her accent the work of a good student — it’s impossible not to be conscious of her performance at every turn. Her intensity, combined with the aura of her celebrity, becomes the story — and the character of the actual Danny Pearl (Dan Futterman, a spot-on physical match) recedes in importance. Thus when Mariane expresses frustration with the investigation, even though a team of Pakistani counter-terrorism officers, led with devotion by a man called only Captain (The Namesake’s terrific Irrfan Khan), are working around the clock, we focus on her pain rather than their hard work. When Mariane turns for support to Danny’s boss, John Bussey (Half Nelson’s fine Denis O’Hare), to friend and colleague Asra Nomani (Bend It Like Beckham’s Archie Panjabi), and to Danny’s parents (allowing screenwriter John Orloff to emphasize Danny’s pride in his Jewish heritage), her needs dwarf the value of their compassion. And when Mariane receives the news she’s been dreading and to which the entire movie has been building, the actress in the role dissolves into a keening grief so busy that audience attention wanders at exactly the wrong time to thoughts about how many takes the shot required, and why a moment so obviously devastating affects us in the head but not in the gut.
Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart focuses on the grim stretch between the time Danny Pearl never returned for dinner (he had set off to interview a shady source) and the time, weeks later, when grisly confirmation of death arrived. Mariane Pearl surely wasn’t passive during that time — she worked her sources and attended to her health for the sake of the baby growing inside her — but neither was she the real story. Daniel Pearl was, and the kind of work he did, and the reasons for the seething unrest in the country in which he was a visitor. At the very least, the story is the search to find one missing journalist, just one among hundreds in peril around the globe. The twisting of narrative perspective that pushes the missing man’s wife so insistently into the foreground makes A Mighty Heart a mighty challenge. Despite the best of intentions, an actress who makes her own headlines gets in the way of the big picture. B-