A Mighty Heart is a work of pathos, with politics simmering in the background and occasionally thrusting itself into the foreground but never taking center stage. That center is occupied by conjugal love, undone on earth by ideological fanaticism but persisting in the mind of the surviving lover, who refuses to let murder sully her spirit.

Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, whom this film commemorates, was snatched off the streets of Karachi, Pakistan, in early 2002. He was abducted while on a mission to interview a sheikh he believed might shed light on the activities of Al Qaeda. In a sense, director Michael Winterbottom and his writers, Sara Crichton and John Orloff (working from a memoir by Pearl’s widow, Marianne), have left those abductors in the shadows. In the movie, they are an unseen force, though their paranoiac suspicions about Pearl being a CIA agent and their hunger to kill a Jew become evident. While these supporters of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were later captured and convicted, their invisibility in the film makes them Kafkaesque in their intangible power: they are not to be argued with because they are mute, not to be bargained with because they offer nothing. It’s as if a black hole has invaded Karachi and sucked Pearl into itself.

Marianne Pearl tries to put a human face on her husband’s kidnappers by reminding the public, during one of her TV interviews, that the politically oppressed make their needs known through acts of desperate violence. Though this statement in itself has truth, it seems inadequate in the context of the movie since we never see the desperation of the kidnappers, or anything else about them.

Consequently, this film can’t give us anything approaching the furious complexity of Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1967 The Battle of Algiers, to which it has been wrongly compared. That masterpiece examined the ingredients of political violence with a Hegelian sense of tragedy: not a matter of pure good vs. pure evil, but two rights in collision, with both opponents-the French settlers and the Algerian insurgents-degrading their causes with violence. Nor can A Mighty Heart even achieve the satisfying melodrama of Constantin Costa-Gavras’s 1969 Z, in which a virtuous politician is assassinated by fascistic fanatics, who are then brought to justice by a heroic magistrate, because the capture of Pearl’s murderers lies outside the scope of this film.

A Mighty Heart succeeds strictly on one level: the sickening mixture of panic and desolation felt by Marianne as the police investigation (conducted by both Pakistani security and the FBI) keeps turning up leads without any happy results. This is fully conveyed by the script and the deliberately choppy editing. We have all endured at least a few moments of panicked loss (as when a child temporarily disappears from our side), but for Mrs. Pearl this emotion became an expanding and enveloping nightmare.

It is to the credit of the filmmakers that they do not try to make the narrative tidy and sleek, trimmed of the incongruities and absurdities real tragedies contain. A cab hired to whisk Pearl’s fellow journalists to a morgue for a momentous identification suddenly breaks down, and the reporters, cursing and sweating, scramble out to push the heap, a scene that would be humorous in another context. One of those colleagues, trying to be considerate of Marianne’s feelings, begins to say something about how to determine if Daniel is still alive, then stifles those two words at the last moment and substitutes “safe,” making us feel all at once his embarrassment, desperation, and kindness. Marianne opens a television interview by declaring, “I have three things I want to say” about the kidnapping. But, since her initial statement makes a dramatic impact, the interview gets cut off after she mentions only one. Even heartbreak has to be formatted for airtime. Such moments of clumsiness and absurdity give this film a gritty memorability.

Although the movie is well acted all around, it’s understandable that Angelina Jolie’s performance has garnered most of the kudos. Young American actresses often possess energy, force, and wit. Yet they seldom convey the self-assurance that seems second nature to European women, the feeling that no matter what life hurls at them, they understand their place in the world, and that place (both social and spiritual) will let them know how to proceed. (When a young American woman is resourceful, it’s because she knows her rights, not her place, which keeps shifting.) Mrs. Pearl has an African-Cuban-Dutch heritage but seems European in her orientation, and Jolie is one American actress who has no problem with this quality of character. Marianne underwent moments of absolute frenzy and despair during her crisis, and Jolie performs these quite well. But her real triumph lies not in such isolated, hyper-dramatic moments, but in the continuous realization of the heroine’s besieged dignity, a calm she forced herself to maintain in order to battle for her husband’s life and to keep the baby she was carrying out of danger. When an interviewer asks her what she would say to her husband if he could hear her, she replies, “I love you,” and the way Jolie inflects “love” makes the banal sentence an auditory caress.

The title of the film expresses, of course, the tribute Marianne wishes to pay to Daniel. And though Daniel’s heart was stilled by fanatics, Jolie’s performance guarantees that we know Marianne’s heart beats mightily enough for herself and for him.

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.
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Published in the 2007-08-17 issue: View Contents
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