On January 23, 2002, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped on the streets of Karachi, Pakistan. Some weeks later a horrifying videotape arrived, documenting that he had been beheaded. In those intervening days, his wife Mariane and a team of friends and investigators tried desperately to find him, adding up the scarce clues that might enable them to save his life. It was nightmarish in a way we can hardly imagine. A Mighty Heart gives us a 100-minute tour of that nightmare.
The flaw in this expertly made movie is that that’s all
it gives us. But first, give director Michael Winterbottom his due: He has effectively every means at his disposal to keep the audience just as tense and frustrated as the characters. (It’s a challenging task because, after all, we already know how the story turns out). The images he shows us appear in exaggerated contrast, so that things we’re trying to look at are concealed by shadows or lost in whitish glare. Interior scenes have an unpleasant fluorescent hue, and the colors look as exhausted as the characters. Often enough, we’re being awoken in the gray dawn, or sitting with the characters through endless eye-glazing hours tapping at laptop computers. The collision of urgency with hopelessness is a particularly miserable feeling, and Winterbottom makes sure we feel it keenly.
The city of Karachi itself contributes a chaotic factor to the story, posing impediments to any attempt to go anywhere or do anything. It is impossibly congested; as Brendan Bernhard described it in the New York Sun, Karachi is “a heavily-guarded city in southern Pakistan with a population of 14 million people, all of whom appear to be male.” The task of locating one man in this melee appears hopeless. As if that wasn’t enough, Winterbottom throws in additional small bits designed to make us feel even more jittery. As we gaze through a car windshield at heedless pedestrians blocking our way, one stumbles and just misses falling under the car’s wheels. Little extra twitches like that, extraneous to the plot, pile the tension higher.
And the sound track is a perfect match, keeping us on edge continually with scrapes and screeches, rustlings and whines, a muezzin’s call, a baby’s cries, strange-sounding pop music blaring from tinny speakers. Cellphone ringtones from five years ago are drearily familiar. Two recent movies that impressed me with their sound design were Punchdrunk Love and Lost in Translation; A Mighty Heart makes three.