Michael Winterbottom's "A Mighty Heart" tells the true story of the kidnapping of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Karachi, Pakistan on January 23, 2002. Nine days later, Pearl was murdered by a Pakistani militant group who believed he was a CIA agent. A video made of his execution was posted to the Internet, and the event struck a blow for the world of journalism and their freedom to seek out the truth. Winterbottom's film follows Daniel Pearl's wife Mariane, a journalist for the French news press, during those nine terrifying days.
Taken from Mariane Pearl's book of the same name, "A Mighty Heart" details her struggle to cope with the kidnapping of her husband. After setting up an interview with an Islamic cleric at a village restaurant in Karachi, Daniel (Dan Futterman) leaves a pregnant Mariane (Angelina Jolie) at the home of friend and fellow journalist Asra Nomani (Archie Panjabi). That night, he does not return. Mariane and Asra set to work finding out as much information on the cleric Daniel was supposed to meet with as they can while a formal investigation by both Pakistani and American officials is carried out.
Mariane is joined by a Pakistani officer called simply Captain (Irrfan Khan) whose determination to find Daniel matches her own, though some of his methods are questionable. Asra emerges as a forceful personality as well, painstakingly mapping out the connections and details of the case on a dry-erase board and offering an almost sisterly comfort to Mariane, who remains incredibly resilient and optimistic amidst the turmoil of the ordeal. She keeps in contact with Daniel's family in America, who also remain optimistic, if perhaps only outwardly. As photos of Daniel held at gunpoint are sent through e-mails to the American government asking for the release of Pakistani detainees, it becomes clearer that he has been kidnapped by a terrorist group, but the mission to find out exactly who is behind it is a long and grueling process.
Throughout this overriding storyline, Michael Winterbottom intersperses brief episodes and flashbacks of Daniel's interactions in Pakistan. During one interview with an anti-Semitic fundamentalist, he bluntly reveals that he is Jewish, something that no doubt leads to his kidnapping later. Scenes of his fateful cab ride to what he thought would be the interview and turns out to be his kidnapping are also shown. Combined with the rest of the film, these flashes help to make up a fragmented storyline that builds tension and reflects the emotional and psychological confusion that Mariane must be experiencing, even as she outwardly keeps her composure. At times, there are even flashbacks to happier times during her relationship with Daniel, including their first meeting and their wedding.
At the heart of the film is a strong and totally believable performance by Angelina Jolie. She immerses herself completely in her role, ditching the glamorized Hollywood personality and transforming into a down-to-earth, suffering woman whose vulnerability seeps through her outward strength. Upon finally receiving the news that Daniel has been murdered, she retreats to her room where she unleashes a torrent of agonized howls. It is an astonishing moment, providing both her character and the viewer with a cathartic release after all the uncertainty and confusion. Jolie makes this moment real and emotionally draining. It is an outpouring of the soul in every sense.
With a film as well-meaning and heartfelt as this, it sometimes feels almost trivial to find fault with it since the story it is telling is so powerful on its own. However, when you come right down to it, "A Mighty Heart" does have its disappointments. One major issue is a lack of character development. Though the film is extremely well-acted by all involved, it is not easy to figure out or understand all of the characters' relationships. How Mariane and Asra are connected and the status of their relationship prior to Daniel's kidnapping is never established, and so the kinship that builds between them throughout the rest of the film loses much of the emotional involvement it might otherwise have had. Captain remains a somewhat ambiguous presence, as although he clearly wants to help Mariane and bring the terrorists to justice, his motivations are dubious and some of his methods unethical. Even though Winterbottom seems intent on portraying a strong relationship between characters of different nationalities and ideologies (Mariane is a French Buddhist, Asra is an Indian Hindu, and Captain is a Pakistani Muslim), they are ultimately presented without the individual definition needed to make their connectivity involving.
As a result, the movie unfortunately fails to generate the suspense Winterbottom so clearly tries to build. Of course, the suspense is already compromised by the fact that most viewers already know the outcome, but because the characters lack development, the plot becomes detached and, dare I say it, even boring at times. Let me make it clear that I am not saying the story of Daniel and Mariane Pearl is not interesting. On its own, it is a compelling and heartbreaking story of determination in the face of the worst extremes. I have not read Mariane Pearl's book and cannot provide a judgment for it, though I have no doubt that it is a tremendous work, but as a film, "A Mighty Heart" fails to do the story justice or to flesh out the heroic people involved.
Paramount Home Video brings "A Mighty Heart" to DVD in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The print is quite grainy throughout, and colors are slightly muted. This may, however, be a deliberate and artistic choice. There are times when the image is very crisp, while at other times it is soft and rather muddy. In general, the picture quality contributes to the film's documentary-like feel, and the less-than-stellar quality keeps our attention on the harrowing story rather than on the visuals.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. "A Mighty Heart" is not filled with big action sequences, but the surround is used well during the many scenes set on the crowded Pakistani streets, as car horns and the ambience of the village are distributed around to create a realistic atmosphere. Dialogue is clear and always audible. Music is also presented clearly. French and Spanish tracks are also available in 5.1, as well as English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
The most expansive supplement on the disc is "A Journey of Passion: The Making of A Mighty Heart." Running 30 minutes, this featurette includes interviews with Michael Winterbottom and the main stars of the film. There is some nice information here about the real Daniel and Mariane Pearl and about the movie's production, but for the most part it is the usual collection of interviews and film clips.
A nine-minute featurette called "Committee to Protect Journalists" follows, highlighting the title organization that was founded to protect the integrity of foreign journalists who do not always enjoy the same freedom as American reporters. Rounding out the disc is a brief public service announcement for the Daniel Pearl Foundation, which was started by Pearl's family to promote cultural understanding through his main passions, journalism and music. This feature may be played before the film as an introduction. It would have been nice if Paramount had provided more substantial features on Daniel Pearl himself as these supplements provide only sketchy background.
Though "A Mighty Heart" tells an extraordinary story, the film's presentation does not match or effectively convey the story's emotional impact. It is certainly well-meaning, and Michael Winterbottom should be commended for taking on the subject and putting it out to the movie-going public. I am deeply torn over this film, as its heart is in the right place, but it simply does not meet expectations. Angelina Jolie's performance is worth seeing, and that alone is perhaps the best reason to see the movie. If you are truly interested in the story of Daniel Pearl, you would probably be better off just reading Mariane's book.