Reviewed by David Levinson

AS A SUBMISSION of star vanity to global wear-and-tear, A Mighty Heart falls somewhere between the moronic campaigning of The Kingdom (where nothing comes between Jamie Foxx and his shades, yo) and the cool trance of The Bourne Ultimatum (whose kinetic submergence of Matt Damon led David Denby to compare him to a “bullet”). Of course, the million-dollary baby floating Winterbottom’s dip into a cracked melting pot is none other than Angelina Jolie – here doing her best to hide her public image behind a tangle of black jerri curls, unshapely frocks, and the quiet commitment to a serious starring role.

But (surprise) she pulls it off in the end – delivering a perfectly bland performance as Mariane Pearl, the French native whose husband, Daniel, was kidnapped and murdered by Islamic extremists while the couple were living in Pakistan. Held in relief against the obvious bias of the source material (Mariane’s memoir), Jolie plays the widow as the spawn of two virtues: a) a martyr-like stoicism, that rears once she’s forced to deal with the inevitable onslaught of media and intelligence agencies; and b) a kind of weary laissez-faireism that, in her pregnant state, dimly suggests she’s just too fragile for it all.

Taken together with Winterbottom’s earlier features, In This World (2002) and The Road to Guantanamo (2006), A Mighty Heart completes an unofficial trilogy on the barbed heart of East-West relations. But rather than try to summarise the war’s countours, Winterbottom opts for the David Simon approach, where lone tracts are pursued inside the overall political machine. The outcome for Simon – at least as far as The Wire's concerned – was to frame the dominant social institutions as “indifferent gods,” ones that ultimately lend to the crippling of those caught within. But the technique, as applied here, has the unfortunate effect of locking us into a view of middle-class domesticity (the flipside to which was the fraught existence of bordercrossers and Guantanamo prisoners dealt with, respectively, by the other two “trilogy” films).

Not that the fate which finally confronted Daniel – a savage, on-camera beheading, the tape of which was later sent to his grieving widow – could by any stretch of the imagination be called “domestic.” But prior to Daniel’s abduction, the Pearl’s existence is staged as a paradigm of blissful, progressive coupling: Aligned in their work, culturally mobile, and sober enough to enter parenthood, they spearhead a new class of liberal intellectualism, the kind that (much like the old class) finds its wage in the safe footstool of dinner-table conversation.

Setting the scene perfectly then is a discussion with the couple and a swab of Pakistani literati, over whether journalism can ignite genuine change among a political maelstrom. Arguing, naturally, that it can, Dan Futterman as Daniel meshes sweaty idealism with boyish reserve, in a way that jams the signal of Winterbottom’s deepest intentions: What’s most unclear about the events leading up to Pearl’s death is whether the director sees them as a personal failure of manner – as the result of a naivete bred by a total and blinding faith in his own impartiality. Or, alternatively, does Pearl’s take-home-to-mom appeal make him the perfect pin-up for the failure of Western rehabilitation inside a wartorn East? Probably both, once you take into account the equally confused portrayal of Pearl’s abductors: Early on, while meeting with a puppet representative (under the assumption that he is arranging for an interview with Sheikh Mubarak Ali Gilani), Daniel is abruptly asked whether he writes about “terrorism.” But if A Mighty Heart was ever determined to play both halves – to regard terrorism as a phenomenon dislodged from its perpetrators –, then that impulse is abandoned the moment Daniel goes missing, and the film descends into a murky witch-hunt through Pakistan’s terrorist network led by the “Captain” (Irfan Kahn).

For the most part, in tracking the Captain’s investigation, Winterbottom keeps things swift and linear: Suspects fall into each like domino pieces, until they finally make visible the presence of Amed Omar Saeed Sheikh. There’s no depth of conspiracy, or any real hint at organisation – a fact which could be argued mirrors the hapazard intentions of the group, given that their stated reasons for kidnapping Daniel are his (non-existent) “involvement with the CIA”. But on a story level, it turns the run of twists into a frictionless downhill slide, met by a random blur of faces. To have at least fleshed out the workings of Sheikh’s militant group (“The National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty”) would not have meant humanizing them – instead, it might’ve wrestled them out from a realm of powerfully abstract terror. But of course, this is Maria’s vision in the end – right down to the syrupy flashbacks that suddenly invade the final reel. What’s most sad to admit then, is that despite its genuine intentions, A Mighty Heart adds very little to the saga of either Daniel Pearl’s death or the ongoing conflict in the East.