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.
Yet for all this tension there isn’t really suspense, in terms of a story you can follow step by step. It’s just too complicated for a non-expert to be able to do that, given that this is a movie flying past rather than a book or news article. We’re given permission to relax on that point when, early on, we see Mariane (played by Angelina Jolie) take a large whiteboard and begin to diagram on it the names and connections of possible players. Every time that board reappears the diagram is more complicated and tangled with names, but apparently we’re meant simply to grasp that fact, rather than scrutinize and memorize. Catching all this data on the fly would be impossible, if only because of the confusion of names. A significant figure in Pearl’s kidnapping, for example, is Amed Omar Saeed Sheikh; he is also known as Omar Sheikh, Sheikh Omar, Sheikh Syed, as well as aliases “Mustafa Muhammad Ahmad” and “Bashir.” Characters toss around the names of other characters in a variety of accents and against a noisy background, so it’s no wonder that some points go flowing by. We end up staying on edge throughout the film, but without a sense of the story proceeding or developing.
The film’s focus on Mariane is also limiting. The more tantalizing story would be the one about Pearl (excellently played by Dan Futterman), and we get hints of his character when, for example, he is seen in a kidnapper’s photo retaining a bold smile, despite the gun pointed at his head. In reenactments of the terrorists’ video Pearl is calm and quietly steadfast about his Jewish background, and even cites more proof of his heritage than his captors demand. The perhaps inevitable decision to tell the story from Mariane’s point of view, given that the film is based on Mariane’s book, means that it centers on a person who is going through something rather than one who is actively doing something. And there is something about Angelina Jolie that is intrinsically cold. The trait leaks from the actress to the character, so that we feel little emotional connection between Mariane and her friends and supporters. Maybe Angelina Jolie has become too much of a celebrity to pass as an actress anymore; even though her appearance and actions are subdued, compared to some other roles she’s played, the tabloid identity still tramples the character’s bounds.
Despite earlier hints that the film might treat terrorists sympathetically (Brad Pitt, one of the film’s producers, said he hoped it would “increase understanding” and tell the story “without anger or judgment”), A Mighty Heart reports events coolly, without provoking either tenderness or vengeful fury toward Pearl’s captors. It begins with the assumption that these horrible things are happening, and doesn’t justify or explain. The closest it comes to politicizing is when a newsclip depicts Colin Powell responding to the kidnappers’ demand that Guantanamo prisoners be released with the statement that they “are being treated humanely.” But this point is not belabored, and it’s clearly outnumbered by scenes depicting the cruelty and anti-Semitism of the terrorists. (They are forthrightly called “terrorists,” not fudge-terms like “militants.”) A Mighty Heart is an effective memoir of what it’s like to endure several weeks of that terror; but without emotionally grounded characters or a developing plot, it amounts to a still life — a peculiarly abrasive and miserable one.