'Heart' gets much of its might from formidable acting jobs

Posted: June 22, 2007

The most potent passages ofA Mighty Heart play like love letters from Daniel Pearl to the son he never met, as transcribed by his widow, Mariane. And they are undeniably powerful.

But for the most part, Michael Winterbottom's well-intended film, the true story of an idealistic journalist and his gallant wife disinvites emotion by focusing on process at the expense of passion.

Pearl, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, arrived in Karachi, Pakistan, early in 2002, committed to opening dialogue among Islamists, Christians and Jews.

The day before he was scheduled to leave Karachi, the journalist was kidnapped and barbarically murdered by jihadists who videotaped his beheading.

Based on the memoir of the same name by Mariane Pearl, herself a radio journalist, A Mighty Heart is a portrait of Mariane (Angelina Jolie) seesawing between hope and hopelessness in the weeks between her husband's abduction and his death.

Jolie delivers a focused and unfussy performance, doing an honorable job imitating Mariane's inimitable Cuban-French accent. Disappearing under the curly coif resembling that of Cher circa Moonstruck, Jolie suppresses her essential Angelina-ness, completing her transition from the screen's sultry siren to its Earth Mother.

Michael Winterbottom's unsentimental film is less a profile in courage than a just-the-facts, ma'am procedural. It focuses on how Mariane, five months pregnant in a foreign country, advanced the operation to find her husband. Danny is played by Dan Futterman, Capote's screenwriter, nicely cast as the reporter and running the emotional gamut from earnest to goofy.

To experience the grief of a death, one must know something of the life, no? That's the assumption of a movie like Silkwood. It is not assumed in A Mighty Heart, which tells us precious little about Mariane and Danny - and even less about the politics behind Danny's kidnapping.

"What do Americans really know about Afghanistan and Pakistan . . . other than bombing them?" asks a friend of Mariane's as they untangle the knotted political and bureaucratic threads that might lead them to Danny.

Good question, and one that opens the door for the filmmakers to provide context absent from the film. Because Danny is Jewish, he is suspected of being an agent of Mossad, the Israeli secret police. Because he is American, he is suspected of being a CIA op. That some Pakistanis hate Jews and Americans is a given, rather than a theme to be developed.

Flanked by diplomats, bureaucrats and reporter chums in the house of her husband's colleague - human firecracker Asra Nomani (Archie Panjabi) - Mariane maps every clue. The villa that serves as their base of operations resembles a fortification distant from the hubbub of Karachi.

In the film's best performance, Irrfan Khan (the father in The Namesake) plays Captain, head of Pakistan's anti-terrorism squad, who keeps his cool as he turns the heat up on the suspected kidnappers.

Winterbottom permits Jolie one emotional scene; and she makes the most of it, keening Mariane's almost-unbearable lament for her lost husband.

Wouldn't the audience feel her loss more profoundly had the filmmakers emphasized what Danny and Mariane stood for and not what felled him?

A Mighty Heart **1/2 (out of four stars)

Produced by Andrew Eaton, Dede Gardner and Brad Pitt, directed by Michael Winterbottom, written by John Orloff, based on the book by Mariane Pearl, photography by Marcel Zyskind, music by Harry Escott and Molly Nyman, distributed by Paramount Vantage.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 mins.

Mariane Pearl. . . Angelina Jolie

Danny Pearl. . . Dan Futterman

Asra. . . Archie Panjabi

Captain. . . Irrfan Khan

Randall Bennett. . . Will Patton

Parent's guide: R (profanity, mature themes)

Playing at: area theaters

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl/

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