The docudrama can be just as emotionally involving as its so-called theatrical counterpart—there is no sequence on film this decade more affecting than in Paul Greengrass' United 93 as the hijacked airline's passengers, resigned to their fate, place goodbye air-phone calls to their loved ones. The expressive potential of the format derives from its air of realism and, in the case of recent and familiar events, the ability to access the fixed memories of its viewers.
It is a filmmaking style oft-employed by director Michael Winterbottom, most recently in two other compelling post-9/11 dramatizations: The Road to Guantánamo and now A Mighty Heart, based on the 2002 kidnapping of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman) as seen through the eyes of his wife, Mariane (Angelina Jolie). Winterbottom traverses the race to track down Daniel and his captors before his gruesome, infamous beheading. In the process, he deftly spins the abduction of a lone American journalist into a microcosm of the morass of Middle Eastern battle lines.
Winterbottom posits that Daniel's Jewish faith made him an increased target in Muslim-dominated Pakistan during the months following the United States' invasion of Afghanistan and, naturally, uses that proposition as allegory for Israel's unending discord with its Arab neighbors. He also incorporates the backlash to American militarism, tension between moderate and radical Islam, positive and unscrupulous influences of today's mass media, and the longstanding hostility between Pakistan and India—indeed, security considerations necessitated shooting the film in India rather than the streets of Karachi. Even Mariane's Cuban heritage is used as a springboard to make oblique indictment of the U.S.'s treatment of detainees at Guantánamo Bay.
Still, even with these thematic embellishments, it is clear this Mighty Heart is thinking more with its head when one of its dominant, recurring images is a flow chart detailing the hierarchy of the terrorist factions holding Daniel. Winterbottom's handheld camerawork and quick-cut editing lend a needed sense of forward momentum to the storyline, but he never allows individual scenes the opportunity to breathe or flesh out any gradation in the characters. Jolie, whose casting as the Afro-Cuban Mariane attracted isolated complaints of racism, is a quite capable actress when given the right material. She acquits herself well to a weighty lead role, but the film's structure and screenplay gradually reduce her to a robotic portrait accessorized by a phony frizz and learned accent, punctuated eventually by a spasm of Oscar-earmarked scream therapy after she learns Daniel's fate that, in contrast to all the other truncated scenes, goes on far longer than it should.
Even more perplexing, given the subject matter, is a muddled or overall absent viewpoint. Hectic imagery of the metro Arab street magnifies an ethereal milieu, when viewed through Western eyes. But, is Winterbottom suggesting a xeno-divide that dare not be crossed except at your own peril? Dunno, no more than one understands why Winterbottom censures in the brutal treatment suffered by detainees at the hands of American captors in Road to Guantánamo yet sanitizes methods of interrogation employed by Pakistani police against stripped and shackled witnesses when they are used to champion Angelina Jolie.
A Mighty Heart assumes the form of a finely honed police procedural, which will more than suffice for informational and entertainment purposes. But, when its epilogue informs us that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Daniel's confessed murderer, is currently imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay, it comes across as one final factoid instead of an ironic comment on the escalating cycle of violence and reprisals that ensnared the Pearls, along with the rest of the world.
A Mighty Heart opens Friday in select theaters.