the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

A Mighty Heart

I write film and TV reviews for DVDFanatic. Here is a truncated version of one of those recent reviews.

On February 1, 2002, Daniel Pearl, the South Asia Bureau Chief for the Wall Street Journal who had been kidnapped nine days before in Karachi, Pakistan while investigating a story on the shoe bomber, Richard Reid, was beheaded by Al Qaeda operatives. His body was further dismembered into ten pieces and disposed of in a shallow grave on the outskirts of the city.

As with the story in last year’s harrowing but imperative, United 93, we know the outcome of A Mighty Heart from the first frame. We are not here to witness the end, but rather partake in the journey leading to that end. Nor is this the story of Daniel Pearl. It is the story of his wife, the Parisian-born journalist Mariane, with him in Pakistan and five months pregnant with the couple’s first child when Daniel was taken. A Mighty Heart is based on her memoir of the same name.

We have little time to get to know Daniel (Dan Futterman) before he is taken. If we feel cheated out of character development, it is minute compared to the bewildering loss felt by Mariane (Angelina Jolie). We never actually see Daniel’s abduction (or his death). Aside from the moments leading up to his kidnapping, we are never privy to Daniel’s experiences through any point of view other than Mariane’s. We are as befuddled and apprehensive as she. In fact, we see Daniel more through flashes of Mariane’s memory flitting back to happier times, than the events of the story itself.

When Daniel doesn’t return home on the night preceding the couple’s departure from Pakistan, the Pearl household is turned into an impromptu command center. U.S. State Department personnel, FBI and CIA, newspaper officials, Pakistani police and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence descend on the house, joining Mariane in a vigil for her husband’s return.

White boards are filled with names, connected by enough arrows to form an inscrutable spider’s web. Data is mined and clues are run down. Suspects are dragged into custody, some of whom are tortured for information. Whole interrogation scenes are conducted without the benefit of subtitles or translation. Yet just when the police seem on the verge of finding their missing man, he slips away again.

This is a film of moments. Photos of Daniel handcuffed with a gun to his head circulate. Stories appear in the press that he is already dead. And through it all, Mariane is a resolute tower of strength, both mascot and team captain, sending impassioned interviews into an indifferent void. A practicing Buddihist, Mariane prays while the police follow leads. They shake down suspects, and she continues to text “I Love You” to her husband’s long silent cell phone.

A Mighty Heart is, in essence, a detective story, a police procedural that creates tension, but little emotion. The film saves the emotion for the moment when the infamous video of Daniel’s beheading surfaces. We, of course, do not see the video. But we see the faces of the men who do. And while Mariane is spared watching her beloved’s slaying, her grief, when she hears about it, is colossal and austere.

British director Michael Winterbottom’s film is almost as close to naturalism as one can get. Filming in many of the actual locations, he captures the chaotic commotion of a third-world city overwhelmed by population. How does one find a single man in such conditions? Winterbottom shoots almost exclusively in natural light, his cameras primarily handheld, capturing action in long, continuous takes. It is as if we are there, just one more police office pouring over data in the Pearl’s livingroom or crowding the streets of a city already bursting at the seams.

Reminding everyone that she is much, much more than just a pretty face, Angelina Jolie gives a riveting performance. A remarkable likeness, Jolie’s accent is impeccable and her portrayal both a testament to Mariane’s strength and her calamitous grief. Irfan Khan, who wowed audiences in The Namesake, gives a marvelous performance as the kindhearted yet tenacious police captain in charge of the investigation. And Archie Panjabi as Daniel’s Indian friend, Asra and now Mariane’s closest pillar or support, is nothing short of terrific.

Although Daniel is not found in time and his life tragically cut short, the film does not consider the mobilization to save him a failure. That American Christians could join forces with Pakistani Muslims to find the Jewish husband of a European Buddhist speaks to the real Mariane’s crusade since her husband’s death. Far from preaching rage and vitriol, she and the film conceive of a world in which love and forgiveness are the only attributes that will save the world from sliding across the brink of oblivion. Though the film begins with Marianne’s narration recounting her husband’s death, it ends with an announcement of her son’s birth. Appropriately enough, his name — chosen by his father shortly before his death — is Adam.


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