3 stars (out of four)
We know how "A Mighty Heart" ends. Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal's South Asia bureau chief, died at the hands of his captors in early 2002, in Karachi, Pakistan. His wife, Mariane Pearl, survived him and later gave birth to their son, Adam.
We know this. Even so, when Angelina Jolie, who plays Mariane in director Michael Winterbottom's lean and swift account, unleashes her anguish upon learning the news of Danny Pearl's beheading, the impact is torrential, and Winterbottom's documentary-style approach pays off. The film isn't much interested in the usual biopic peaks and valleys, or in hyping the punishing limbo of Mariane's life in the weeks after the kidnapping, and before confirmation of her husband's death. But when Jolie cracks open this key moment, it's really something.
Here's how Pearl herself (writing with Sarah Crichton in her memoir "A Mighty Heart") describes that cry of anguish: "I slam the door, and with all my might, I cry out. I have never screamed like this before. I can feel that I'm screaming, but the sound that rips up out of me is alien, as if everything is coming out of me. I sound like an animal caught in a bone-crushing trap."Up until this moment, which is handled just right in the film, Jolie's Mariane has been like a tuning fork, emitting a hum of worry and contained rage. When the news hits her, the resulting emotions are enormous but not indulgent. It feels real and messy.
"A Mighty Heart" is a worthy film on a great, tragic subject. Unlike Winterbottom's recent film "The Road to Guantanamo," which dazzled with its technique but left a lot of vagaries hanging in the dusty air, it's a lucid narrative, revealing another side of terrorist-shadowed life on this planet after Sept. 11, 2001, and after the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq.Screenwriter John Orloff doesn't go for "scope" or even much context; he's content to put one foot in front of the other, following Ms. Pearl's days and weeks after the kidnapping. Meetings with her husband's Wall Street Journal colleagues, including editor John Bussey (Denis O'Hare), intertwine with Mariane's wary relationship with Pakistan's head of counter-terrorism (Irrfan Khan). Dispatches from an earnest if ineffective American diplomatic security agent (Will Patton) are balanced by Mariane's friendship with the Pearls' fellow journalist, Asra (Archie Panjabi).
The end is near throughout "A Mighty Heart." Winterbottom, who is very good at hurtling chaos, has just enough taste to keep his subjects honest and their pain free of melodrama. If there's a dimension missing from the film, it's this: Winterbottom is so focused on keeping the narrative trackable and the audience inside Mariane's plight, he simplifies here and there. The director does not quite achieve what Paul Greengrass did with "United 93," which was a stunning amalgam of documentary fakery and dramatic intensity. The Pearl film's concerns require a different, more intimate sense of suffering. Yet I wonder if a longer version of the film wouldn't have allowed for more detours and blind alleys and truthful emotional ambiguities. The Pearls' marriage (Dan Futterman plays Danny, largely in flashbacks) has a slightly idealized glow about it.
As it stands, then, "A Mighty Heart" leads inexorably to Jolie's magnificent scream, which is more--deeper--than a mere Oscar-baiting moment. The film is most vivid and immediate when Jolie, her character's patience and facade cracking, accesses a full tangle of impulses at once. She is a uniquely intense screen presence. We can only imagine what Mariane's ordeal was like. Jolie and Winterbottom come closer than most could have in imagining it for us.
'A Mighty Heart'
Directed by Michael Winterbottom; screenplay by John Orloff, based on the book by Mariane Pearl with Sarah Crichton; photographed by Marcel Zyskind; edited by Peter Christelis; production design by Mark Digby; produced by Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner and Andrew Eaton. A Paramount Vantage release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:48. MPAA rating: R (for language).
Mariane Pearl - Angelina Jolie
Danny Pearl - Dan Futterman
Asra Nomani - Archie Panjabi
Captain - Irrfan Khan
Randall Bennett - Will Patton
John Bussey - Denis O'Hare