The title of Marianne Pearl's memoir, A Mighty Heart, presumably refers to her late husband, Daniel, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and murdered by Islamic extremists in the winter of 2002. In Michael Winterbottom’s new film adaptation, however, the coronary mightiness is all Mariane’s. Save for a hasty account of the events leading up to his disappearance, the doomed man (Dan Futterman) appears only in bittersweet flashbacks and recreated photos; the bulk of the movie depicts the efforts of his pregnant wife (Angelina Jolie) and various others to secure his safe return—efforts that we observe with sorrow, knowing they will fail. Despite its chaotic tumult of leads, e-mails, interrogations and suppositions, A Mighty Heart doesn’t exactly qualify as a procedural, and it certainly isn’t a thriller or a drama. Instead, it’s a hectic testament to Mariane Pearl’s courage and self-possession—the hagiography of a grieving widow who doesn’t yet know for certain that her husband is dead.
In other words, it’s a star turn, though of an unusually deceptive kind. Mariane Pearl was raised in France by parents of Dutch-Jewish and Afro-Cuban ancestry, and it’s hard to even recognize Jolie at first through the tower of frizzled hair, brown contact lenses, lightly bronzed skin and murmuring accent. For a while, I was impressed by Jolie’s restraint, the way she lightly deflects the histrionics you’d expect of both a desperate spouse and an Oscar-winning actress. Even in the days immediately following Daniel’s abduction, amidst all the panic and fear, Mariane frequently smiles or appears relaxed, always in a credible way that suggests emotional exhaustion rather than indifference. Eventually, though, people around her begin commenting on this extraordinary composure (“You’d never know her husband has been missing for six days!”), clearly for our benefit—at which point I began to dread the inevitable breach of this carefully constructed dam. Sure enough, the money scene, in which Mariane is told of the video that shows Daniel’s decapitation, is an obscene orgy of guttural animal anguish, as Jolie crams an entire performance’s worth of shrieking, wailing and head-banging into a single tour de force moment that retroactively cheapens everything that preceded it.
But then, that’s presumably what the audience has come to see. As horrific as the Daniel Pearl story is, it’s fundamentally sensationalistic rather than dramatic, which means that it has nothing to offer save the spectacle of a movie star suffering—or, in this case, making a grand show of not suffering until the final reel. Winterbottom, who’s become increasingly interested in current events (his last film was The Road to Guantánamo), seems to be genuinely consumed with the minutiae of the investigation—tracing IP addresses and cell-phone records, battling ludicrous charges of espionage (directed by the Pakistani government at the Pearls’ Indian colleague, Asra Nomani, played here by the always terrific Archie Panjabi), torturing suspects Jack Bauer-style until they finally crack. But there’s no intelligible framework for all this frantic activity, no resonance with Mariane’s private turmoil. Last year’s United 93, in its depiction of the incredulous response of air traffic controllers and NORAD officials, got at something urgent and true about the way America changed on September 11. A Mighty Heart, by contrast, is merely one family’s tragedy, and watching scores of people striving in vain to save Daniel Pearl’s life is neither illuminating nor cathartic. It’s just vaguely depressing.
As I was writing that last paragraph, I ran a quick Google search to find Asra Nomani’s name—I always forget to bring the press kit home—and stumbled onto an e-mail she wrote to the film’s producers, explaining her decision not to attend the premiere or participate in any further promotional efforts. (It was quoted on Gawker.com last week.) Nomani, who worked closely with Daniel and played a key role in the rescue effort, is credited, along with Mariane herself, as a consultant on A Mighty Heart. After seeing the movie, however, she decided to bail, and her words speak more eloquently to its failure than any critic’s ever could. “Maybe I’ve read a little too much Joseph Campbell,” she wrote, “but I think that our society has become quite sick in the way we manufacture heroes out of tragedy ... and to me the industry that supports this myth-making is not one in which I want to participate.” There’s mighty for you.
A Mighty Heart
Angelina Jolie, Dan Futterman, Archie Panjabi
Directed by Michael