A Mighty Heart takes an enormous gamble, and sinks or swims by it -- it tries to engage us in a meticulous police procedural, the outcome of which is already known to anyone watching the film. The film begins its action about an hour or so after Wall Street Journal South Asia bureau chief Daniel Pearl leaves his pregnant wife Mariane alone in their Karachi apartment to go to a meeting with a shady figure known as Sheik Gilani, who he suspects may have information on the 'shoe bomber' Richard Reid or may himself be a key terrorist figure. Like Daniel, Mariane is a journalist, and the two of them follow a strict procedure of regular call-ins when the other is off on a dangerous assignment. When Daniel misses one of these check-ins, Mariane springs into action, first reporting him missing to Pakistani authorities and later, to American agencies and the Wall Street Journal. Various players begin to flood into the apartment and the story, each of them taking somber mood cues from the tightly-wound, no-nonsense Mariane.
As Mariane, Angelina Jolie totes around a giant belly and a big pile of hair and sinks into the role of a traffic coordinator, constantly gauging the progress of the ad-hoc investigation into Daniel's disappearance and shuffling the other characters in and out of the main action. Early on, she creates a tree diagram on a blackboard to get a sense of where Daniel was going when he was abducted and who might have knowledge of his whereabouts. Pictures of 'persons of interest' are slapped up and yanked down. The movie demands your full attention as it unspools reams of information: names, places, events, and questions that must be answered if the crime will be foiled. I'm sure this is a true reflection of those sleepless weeks as Mariane Pearl remembered them in her book, but the sheer tonnage of investigative info A Mighty Heart presents us ends up crowding out Mariane and Daniel as people: their habits, their convictions, their unusual way of life. I know as little about those things now as I did before seeing the film.
There are two scenes that stand out from the clutter, the first of which is a tense interrogation session between a seasoned Pakistani investigator and a captured terrorist suspect, who he believes may have information as to the whereabouts of Daniel Pearl. The way the scene is constructed, director Michael Winterbottom almost seems to be trying to convince us that the brutal treatment the suspect receives is necessary because of his calm, articulate, ready-to-die-if-that's-Allah's-plan demeanor. In a ticking bomb scenario -- which isn't exactly far-fetched if you're a criminal investigator in this part of the world -- how else do you get a religious fanatic to talk if not through the overt threat of violence? The other memorable scene is one that has already inspired a lot of debate as to its merit -- it's the scene in the third act when Mariane learns that Daniel has been decapitated, and she responds by letting out an endless succession of pained screams. It's a moment that's designed to shatter the audience.
As is often the case with my job, I probably know too much about the scene in question and how it was filmed in order to be a fair judge of whether it works on an emotional level. I know that it was shot many times in many different ways, and tweaked to within an inch of its life, so it's hard for me to perceive how it could have come from a true emotional place. It certainly seems to show us the raw, animalistic Angelina Jolie who hasn't really existed on screen since the days of Gia and Girl, Interrupted, but is she a good enough actress at this point to turn it on and off? Is screaming necessarily a tall order for an actor? It's standard operating procedure for horror films -- I doubt anyone ever asked Jamie Lee Curtis if she was dredging up the pain of life when she screamed her lungs out. Does it even matter if the pain is real? Needless to say, I haven't really made up my mind about the scene -- I need to see it again.
A Mighty Heart makes no claims to be a biopic of Daniel Pearl, so we can't really fault it for giving nearly no screentime to Dan Futterman's performance as Pearl. That said, starting the movie with Mariane and leaving it there, dramatically, puts a huge burden on the filmmakers to come up with something truly solid to fill the void, and the film doesn't quite come through. It's not really a portrait of a woman dealing with spectacular stress, or the sudden onset of extreme loneliness or fear of her partner's imminent death. It's closer in tone and spirit to CSI: Karachi. It basically asks the viewer to accept Mariane and Daniel as whole characters right from the get-go, and then speeds forward with the pace and timing of an action thriller, hopping from clue to clue and lead to lead, while sometimes cutting back to stoic, stone-faced Mariane as she marks up her blackboard or tacks another wallet-sized photo onto it. And that's pretty much it -- I guess I was expecting something a little braver.