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Heart Breaking 

Akin to Paul Greengrass' United 93, Michael Winterbottom's A Mighty Heart works against the grain of conventional narrative and proceeds steadily toward an end that we know and dread, the horrifying beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. A Mighty Heart has billed itself as a police procedural, but it isn't nearly so orderly as that. The picture chronicles various efforts to locate Pearl before he can be harmed, but for the most part the film is a study in anguish and helplessness, a vigil of friends, family and professional associates who ward off despair with wishes that don't come true. At the center is not the victim but his pregnant wife, a remarkable study in poise, intellectual balance and clarity and profound love.

Adapted by John Orloff from Marianne Pearl's memoir, A Mighty Heart is the story of a great love snuffed out too soon. Marianne (Angelina Jolie) and Daniel (Dan Futterman) are an unlikely but perfectly matched couple. He is an American Jew. She is a French woman of African-Cuban parentage. In their ethnic disparity, they are a wonderful emblem for a multicultural 21st century world. Their bond is cemented in their shared professional calling and a commitment to the kind of unblinkered journalism that brings Danny to his grave.

During the invasion of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, Danny and Marianne are posted to Islamabad, Pakistan. Then, as the Taliban is quickly driven from power, Al Qaeda operative Richard Reed attempts to blow up a trans-Atlantic airline flight with a bomb hidden in his shoe. Danny and Marianne are scheduled to go on an extended vacation that will include the birth of their first child. But they delay the break for what they think is just a matter of days when Danny gets a lead on a story about Reed's intellectual and religious training at the hands of Islamic fanatics. To cover the story, they travel to the teeming city of Karachi, where they are able to stay with a friend, Wall Street Journal reporter Asra Nomani (Archie Panjabi). Danny takes significant precautions but ultimately agrees to meet alone with jihadists who kidnap him rather than assist him with his story. Eventually we discover that the story leads were false, bait to lure Danny into a trap.

The subsequent communications with the kidnappers and the determined attempt to find and rescue Danny is not always easy to follow, no doubt a fair reconstruction of chaotic events. Karachi is a sprawl of mighty disorganization. The inside of Asra's flat is perfectly pleasant, but almost everything else we see in Karachi is depressing and claustrophobic. A voiceover at the film's beginning says that though it is certainly one of the largest cities in the world, no one knows how many people live there. Traffic barely moves. Buildings appear on the verge of collapse. And grinding poverty is omnipresent. Finding Danny in this jumble of humanity would seem akin to a marble on the Sahara, and so it proves. Yet, the Pakistani police make a game, if ultimately unsuccessful and distressing, effort.

To a sadly shocking extent, A Mighty Heart illustrates how divided we human beings are. Marianne and Danny are reporters. But they are humanitarian devotees of the principle that the truth will set us free. They are certainly loyal to all the advantages of the Western world. But in their work, they seek to give a voice even to those with whom they disagree. Yet, Danny is kidnapped by the people he would seek to interview and rather than being embraced as a liaison, a cultural mediator of a kind, he is derided with racist sneers and accused of being a CIA operative. As the intolerant factions among the Karachi community learn that Marianne has continued to reside with Asra, who is Indian, accusations arise that Pakistan's historic enemy has collaborated with Danny's spying. Such developments leave us wondering if the world can ever heal itself.

We have a comparable response to the attitude of American agent Randall Bennett (Will Patton), who brags about how ruthless the Pakistani police are. He sees their willingness to use torture as a good thing that will speed Danny's rescue rather than the kind of thing that has turned so many of the world's unemployed and desperate into revolutionaries. We actually have more regard for Captain Habib (Irfan Khan), the Pakistani detective in charge, who does, indeed, not hesitate to brutalize suspects unwilling to talk. Habib, though, at least seems to regret what he sees as the necessity of his methods, whereas Bennett relishes them.

Quite obviously, A Mighty Heart will not appeal to a viewer looking for mere entertainment. But it's a smart, humane film with a powerful example in Marianne's ability to eschew hatred. Though her great physical beauty shines through, Angelina Jolie's depiction of Marianne Pearl's inner beauty is the mighty heart of this film.

click to enlarge In A Mighty Heart, Marianne Pearl (Angelina Jolie) waits for news about her husband Danny, a Wall Street Journal reporter kidnapped by Islamic terrorists. - 2007 PARAMOUNT VANTAGE
  • 2007 Paramount Vantage
  • In A Mighty Heart, Marianne Pearl (Angelina Jolie) waits for news about her husband Danny, a Wall Street Journal reporter kidnapped by Islamic terrorists.
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