Audiences expecting a teary but affirming melodrama based on the true events of The Wall Street Journal
correspondent Danny Pearl’s kidnapping and murder in Pakistan should be advised that helmer Winterbottom (The Road to Guantánamo
) doesn’t roll like that: We see Pearl’s pregnant wife, Mariane (Jolie), not as a suffering saint but a journalist hungry for answers to Danny’s disappearance. Likewise, Winterbottom’s visuals are characteristically street-level; instead of panoramic vistas, he trolls the avenues of Karachi with jittery hand-held cinematography, each frame teeming with chaos – three-wheeled lorries and livestock, renegade cabbies, prayer calls over a loudspeaker, and billboards for Nokia and Pepsi. Eager to interview Sheikh Gilani (Ikram Bhatti), Danny (Futterman) steps into a car and simply vanishes, leaving behind a cooling trail of e-mails and a wife five months pregnant. Joining the hunt are a local cop (Khan), a no-nonsense federal agent (Jillian Armenante, making the most of it), and an ambassador (Patton) so tenderly disposed toward Mariane that he reads What to Expect When You’re Expecting
and advises her on avoiding bladder infections and preterm labor. (This low-key but nuanced scene is typical of the movie’s subdued emotional pitch, and it’s not the only moment that’s offhandedly funny.) In its second act, A Mighty Heart
takes the shape of a procedural thriller, beating down doors and seizing computers. A sudden curveball in the narrative drew gasps from our audience – good ones. As Mariane and the investigators realize that a new era of terrorism is dawning – one in which journalists are high-value targets rather than impartial citizens of the world – the first act’s gauzy vibe of clever expatriate dinner parties dissipates and is replaced by steady aloofness and dread. As with Winterbottom’s semipornographic 9 Songs
the relationship is revealed through stylish flashbacks. The elliptical narrative also recalls Fernando Meirelles’ somewhat similarly themed The Constant Gardener
, a film ultimately more heartfelt and accessible to mainstream audiences because its maker is unafraid of grief and explores it more deeply. That said, Jolie is fine in the role once Winterbottom establishes that Mariane’s mother is Cuban, thereby explaining Jolie’s kinky hairdo and heavy bronzer. (The French accent she seems to command from her actual mother.) She looks great in a series of cotton wraps, unbloated except for her bump, and she handles a challenging scene late in the film with aplomb.