02 July 2007

A Mighty Heart

Directed by: Michael Winterbottom
Written by: John Orloff

Grade: B-

Michael Winterbottom's jittery procedural A Mighty Heart suffers from being a star vehicle dedicated to baby collector Angelina Jolie, though not as a result of her performance, which is admittedly fine; she disappears, unlike, say, Cary Grant into Night and Day's Cole Porter, quite nicely into the role of Mariane Pearl, dolled up as a frizzle-haired panracial princess, and save for a few too up-close shots of those unmistakable lusty lips the celebrity persona of "Angelina Jolie" might entirely disappear from the viewer's mind. But as the film is a gift from Jolie to herself, oh and to and from Mariane Pearl, A Mighty Heart makes the fatal mistake of believing that Ms. Pearl's story—the script is based on her co-authored memoir of the same name—is a viable basis for a film, and it draggingly makes it the central focus of what on the periphery is an otherwise fascinating and devastating tale of international kidnapping.

Ms. Pearl, a French national and broadcast journalist, was in Karachi, a "vast, sprawling, chaotic city where there are so many people no one knows how to count them", with her husband Daniel (Dan Futterman), an investigative reporter for The Wall Street Journal, in 2002, the year after the planes hit the towers (and something hit the Pentagon). The story ought to be painfully familiar to anyone who happened to come across a newspaper or television five years ago: en route to an interview, Daniel was abducted and nine days later he was killed, throat slit, head sawed off and body cut into ten pieces; and, to add insult to savagery, most of it was captured on a gruesome terrorist video tape.

Most of A Mighty Heart is set during the space of time that he was gone but presumed still alive, as Mariane and Pakistanti police desperately investigated his possible whereabouts. It's thirty-odd miserable days; in the Pakistani press, rumors spread that Danny was Mossad, CIA and working for Indian intelligence services, nothing short of a remarkably impressive but damning C.V.; meanwhile, one Pakistani official insists the kidnapping to be an Indian conspiracy, meant to make Pakistan look bad. In such a paranoid and disingenuous climate, where an urgent investigation is hampered by a centuries-old conflict, how can there be any hope of its success? But Mariane manages never to collapse into pessimism; the biggest concern in her camp is that the kidnappers or the media will discover that Daniel, though non-practicing, is of Jewish birth, which the film asserts is a veritable death sentence in that part of the world.

I've always been skeptical of the claim that Pearl's Jewish-American-ness was the motive behind his killing—as I am of claims that John Hinckley was trying to impress Jodie Foster—but, to Winterbottom and his screenwriter John Orloff's credit, A Mighty Hear does sneak in a bit of the larger context, and a hint of what ought to placate the 9/11 Truthers, even if it's probably too confusing for most audience members to catch. (Most of the film is a bit convoluted in the name of realism, as names are tossed about indiscriminately while faxes come in, news articles get sent and emails arrive, all bearing more information than the audience—and diegetic investigators—can process.) Namely, the film addresses ISI chief Mahmoud Ahmed's connection to leading Pearl-decapitation suspect Omar Saeed Sheikh, who in 2001, one can dig up with a little basic research, had passed money from Ahmed on to hijacker ringleader Mohammed Atta. (Some researchers claim this, the ISI's connections to Islamic Jihadist groups, is what Pearl was researching when he was captured, and that his murder was an ISI job and not "Al Qaeda".)

Winterbottom shoots the film with a shaky handheld camera, complemented by a staccato editing style that jump cuts between very brief scenes comprised of quick successions of individual shots; the film moves along like a bicycle on a rocky and unpaved Pakistani road. At times, along with an indicative and syrupy score, it goes a bit too far, making the execution feel like a succession of tired montages with the undeniable stink of Hollywood, but ultimately it fittingly reflects the fractured uncertainty of the inquiry into Daniel's whereabouts. The editing also often takes on a subjective role, quickly flashing back to Mariane's memories of Danny and thereby also establishing the fragmentary condition of her psyche.

As a director, Winterbottom is often at his best when his central subject is an unreliable narrator, such as in his masterful Steve Coogan dilogy (24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy), but lately his films have focused on "true" stories whose leading characters are taken at simple face value, such as in this film or the problematic though absorbing Road to Guantanamo. (Guantanamo's narrators seem unreliable, but curiously Winterbottom never acknowledges that fact.) But A Mighty Heart's closest parallel in the Winterbottom oeuvre would be his 1997 Welcome to Sarajevo; both films are about journalists covering a war, although in Sarajevo they are in a more distinct war zone, and both feature scenes of roundtable, journalistic shit-shooting.

But the comparisons to Winterbottom's earlier work are for naught; while Winterbottom's personal stamp is observably present, ultimately A Mighty Heart belongs to Jolie, as well as, one assumes, to her co-producing beau Brad Pitt. (Evidenced at least by the inclusion of the aforementioned uncharacteristically intrusive musical score.) That's unfortunate because Winterbottom's a stronger filmmaker than either of them, and the film is at its strongest when it moves away from Mariane, holed up in her makeshift command center, and goes out into the streets to observe the Pakistani police legwork led by "Captain" (Irrfan Khan in a committed performance), who's unafraid to slap uncooperative bureaucrats or hang suspects, naked, from the ceiling by their wrists. "We'll fight kidnappings with kidnappings," he declares with dubious morality after arresting a few of Omar Sheikh's cousins/co-conspirators. Despite the audience's teleological knowledge, Winterbottom, with gritty verisimilitude, imbues an urgency into the scene of torture, as well as into a firefight between police and "terrorists" and into raid after raid, each of which is intense and yet, of course, in vain.

But the film falters irredeemably when it focuses on Mariane, which it unfortunately does quite often, particularly in the first act. By all accounts she is, and was at the time, a fortitudinous woman of unflappable composure; that's great, but it isn't very dramatic or cinematically interesting. Mariane flops on a TV interview because she doesn't adopt the familiar American persona of the weepy wife, leading a producer to quip, "you wouldn't know her husband's been kidnapped." That may be unfair, for television, but the same problem applies to A Mighty Heart, which suffers in a similar way to the vastly inferior World Trade Center—when characters are shown sitting around, powerless, impotent and simply waiting for news to come in, it can only be detrimental to any sense of narrative flow, no matter how skittery Winterbottom's camera is or even how talented the performers are, including a plethora of marvelous character actors that flesh out A Mighty Heart's mighty margins. "Everyone else can collapse," an official from the American consulate tells Mariane, "but not you." This dramatically unwise advice is obeyed until a Jolie-indulgent scene near the end at which point it is unwisely abandoned, an egregious error on the filmmakers' parts; it's not poorly filmed, per se, or poorly performed, but it smacks too uncomfortably and tastelessly of exploitation, manipulation and unnecessary Oscar-baiting.

A Mighty Heart's greatest virtue, perhaps, is its endearingly idealistic celebration of journalism as an inherently, when done right, virtuous profession—a welcome respite from the present steady stream of news-bashing—even though the final reel of the film itself is a swipe at a crude and indecent modern press corps that's focused on scoring dewey Barbara Walters-style interview exclusives rather than on performing serious journalism of the brand practiced by the late Mr. Pearl. A Mighty Heart implies that whether or not the terrorists successfully terrorize us depends on whether or not we allow ourselves to feel terrified; so I suppose focusing on a courageous woman, and moving away from sinister tales of desert decapitations, is a step in the right direction. But that doesn't mean it makes for interesting filmmaking.


Clayton L. White said...

Jolie definitely has a presence, and she can be good when she tries, but I had the feeling that this film was nothing but a vanity project.

I think Winterbottom can be good (Tristram Shandy is absolutely brilliant), but he can also be quite sloppy (Road to Guantanamo was a mess), unfortunately he's nothing but a director for hire here, and that's not very becoming. Still, I'm glad to see Dan Futterman getting some better roles, he's a very talented individual.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed The Road to Guantanamo though perhaps that's the wrong word...but Winterbottom can definitely do shoddy work, like the bizarre and uninteresting Code 46. He's been awfully prolific so here's to hoping he puts out a new one soon that reminds everyone how great he can be.

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