O.k., let’s just tackle the most obvious thing head on: this is Angelina Jolie’s vehicle.
If you happen to be touched - willingly or unwillingly – by the sea of pop culture and celebrity omnipresence around us nowadays, you can’t help but know who she is, and how famous she is, whether you were splashed with the earlier Gia images, or those of the Billy Bob years, or the more recent I-am-not-a-homewrecker-does-that-kid-have-any-parents period, there she is, lithe-bodied, big-eyed, full-lipped, larger-than-life.
You’re right, I haven’t mentioned her acting. Because I think any roles after Girl, Interrupted have been obliterated by her celebrity persona.
And that’s the main difficulty of A Mighty Heart (whose book rights her current squeeze bought when with his former wife, and who was rumored to have been destined for the lead role, which would have been a huge error too). If she had done this role back around the time of Gia or Girl, Interrupted, she might have been less distracting.
The first time she appears onscreen, all you can think is “That’s Angie in a curly wig and creepy brown contacts!” And it’s hard to silence that thought for the remaining 1 hour and 39 minutes.
Like the book it is based on, A Mighty Heart opens on January 23, 2002, the day that Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman of The Birdcage fame) disappears. It follows him and his very pregnant wife (and fellow journalist) Mariane (Jolie), as both go through their day. They are due to meet back at the home of their hostess, another WSJ reporter, Asra Q. Nomani (Archie Panjabi) for a dinner party she’s holding that night.
Danny never returns, a hunt ensues, the ending is gruesome and tragic (Danny’s captors behead him on film and post it on the Internet), but as the book (and Mariane’s public demeanor) reveal, the ending is not the point of the story. What Danny’s wife wanted their son, Adam, and anyone else to know, is that the father was so much more than a very sad marker in the post-9/11 world, and he was frantically sought after he vanished by an unlikely kabal of Pakistani police, American embassy and FBI staff, his Cuban-Dutch wife and his Indian colleague.
As difficult as it is for a filmmaker to portray a historic event whose conclusion is known to all, Michael Winterbottom manages through the pacing and documentary-like shooting to maintain the suspense and tension sufficiently so that you almost forget that you know the outcome.
Mariane, Asra, the Captain (Pakistani police anti-terrorism unit) and Randall Bennett (US embassy) quickly assemble and tighten into a focused and devoted team, extracting data, drawing web-like links on a whiteboard, and arriving at the cold metal realization that Danny was tricked into a trap as he pursued information about goofy shoebomber Richard Reid.
I was absorbed by every development of the Daniel Pearl kidnapping in 2002, and read A Mighty Heart as soon as it was released. It seems an almost all-too-perfect love story. Mariane writes early on in a flashback about her life with Danny, from how they met, to his intense passion applied to all that he did, to his massive leather Barcalounger that he shipped from one overseas posting to another, to the marriage contract that they wrote and recited before their witnesses when they tied the knot.
By the time you complete that section of the book, you may find yourself glancing at your spouse or partner and comparing him or her to Danny, and that’s not adviseable, as Mr. Pearl sets the bar pretty high. Based on Mariane’s telling, it seems safe to conclude that in the years they were together, Daniel was not trolling online dating sites or sharing stolen kisses with WSJ girls in darkened bars after work.
But this is where the movie falters. It’s not bad enough that the story is subsumed by the oversized persona of La Jolie, we also get shortchanged when it comes to Danny’s story, and we never fall in love with him, the way we do when reading the book, and that’s a pity, because I think it’s an important piece of why Mariane searched so frantically for him, and why it was particularly tragic that such a good person was cut down in his 30s, when he could have done so much more, not least of all as a father to Adam.
In addition, as sweet as Dan Futterman is, I think Noah Wyle, the former ER star, would have been great in this role. He’s pleasant-looking, bears a close resemblance to Daniel Pearl, and I think he would have had more presence in the scenes with Jolie than Futterman did. In Mariane’s book, you get a sense that they were equals in their relationship. In the movie, they seem more like those couples where one personality is larger and overshadows the other.
Fair play to Jolie, I do think she did a good job on the accent, her French pronunciation too, and the one scene, far, far into the movie where I did actually forget it was her is that where the Captain, Randall and the other men come home and tell Mariane about the video and how it contains undisputable proof that Danny is dead. She rushes to their bedroom, shuts the door and lets out a prolonged howl that is so anguished and so chilling that I felt the hairs on my arms stand up. Here, she hits the mark (though I think it could have been edited to a few seconds less) and does have an award-worthy moment.
The Captain’s character gets shorter shrift than in the book, which is also a shame, because he was a major part of the story, and he’s less so onscreen. This is not to say that Irrfan Khan does not do wonders with the role anyway, but I think Winterbottom could have made the film a few minutes longer to allow us to see more of the humanity of the Captain (who was actually quite distraught when he comes home and says to Mariane: “I’m sorry I could not bring your Danny to you.”) and more flashbacks of Danny and Mariane in their life before the ill-fated stopover in Karachi.
[Stay tuned for interviews with Archie Panjabi and Irrfan Khan.]
The movie opens in the US and Canada on June 22nd, and in India on September 14.
UPDATE, June 24: Asra Nomani voices her displeasure at the absence of Danny Pearl in the film, here.
See it or skip it?
If you’ve not read the book, see it. The story is compelling and touching, in spite of all the reservations I’ve mentioned above. Also, both Irrfan Khan and Archie Panjabi are solid.
If you’ve read the book, you may want to pass on it, as I think you’ll be disappointed.