A Mighty Heart

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.

7 thoughts on “A Mighty Heart

  1. She is super! I loved The Changeling. I also like that she stays away from those too sweet romantic comedies! I’m a 52 year old mother of two daughters and I’d rather they see woemn in movies who can take care of themselves rather than whine about breaking up or finding a guy. I just hope she keeps doing thrillers or drama or action and leave those romantic comedies to the lesser talented .

  2. I think your example is flawed, (as are most reverse-racist arguments) You cannot remove the context. WHite people have a long history of ridiculing and impersonating colored people in black-face, or yellow-face, and it is hardly ever meant in an inoffensive manner. THe fact remains that a white person dressing up as a minority has poor connotations for almost all of us.

    I would never argue that Naveen Andrews should portray a Dane. My understanding was that the racial and nationalistic context had been removed from that particular production, such as in some other modern reinterpretations of Shakespeare. Additionally, Hamlet is a fictional character in a play, allowing literary license. A Mighty Heart is ostensibly a film based on a true story. There is a huge difference. I still maintain it to be both callous and insensitive, and the people over at Racewire and other minority led publications seem to agree with me.

  3. Gautham,

    Here’s the thing about Ms. Jolie’s make-up: if she cannot play the role of Mariane using make-up to make her look more like the subject (a Dutch-Caribbean woman), then aren’t you also making a case for any South Asian actor to never be allowed play a role of, I don’t know, maybe “Othello” or “Hamlet”? Haven’t Indian and Indian-American actors worked hard to be considered for any role, regardless of their skin color? How would it be if I were Danish, and I see that Naveen Andrews has just signed on to play Hamlet for this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park, but I say “He’s not light enough to play a Dane!” That would be total BS, because who’s to say that Danes are only pale, blue eyed people. The majority are, but not all.

    FYI, if you want to say more about the skin color issue, please do visit here.

  4. You’ve ignored the most heinous aspect of the film; that Jolie is essentially in blackface to portray this character. I guess taboos don’t matter if your star is bright enough.

  5. Joseph, interesting that you mention United 93, which was famous for its use of lesser known actors. I surfed on to that one night completely by accident just when it was starting, and was glued to the TV ’til it ended. My heart was pounding by the close.

    On Angelina Jolie, it’s not that I have a huge dislike of her per se. I liked her a lot in Gia (though, given her own supposedly wild times when she was a teen and in her early 20s, I don’t know how much acting was involved).

    It’s just that, at this point, given how huge she is, if she was so committed to the story being done and getting out there, why didn’t she co-produce the movie with Brad and look for an actor in Europe or Latin America to play the role? This way, she could have used her celebrity to promote the film, but let someone less distracting play the lead. The role could have been a launching pad for someone like, say, Thandi Newton. (But that would have made a pairing with Noah Wyle unlikely, given that they already acted together as a couple in ER.)

    And I agree, the film is generally o.k., and as I said at the end, for people who haven’t read the book, sure, do go see it.

    But if you followed the story as it unfolded 5 years ago, read the Mariane Pearl book, and/or the Levy book, then I don’t know how much more the film will add.

    Yes, Irrfan is generally all around super. I’m still quite surprised to see him doing TV ads in India and shows like “Mano Ya Na Mano”.

    Both he and Archie Panjabi were very interesting to talk to, both quite accessible and personable.

  6. To experience the grief of a death, one must know something of the life, no? It is not assumed in A Mighty Heart, which tells us precious little about Mariane and Daniel – and even less about the politics behind Daniel’s kidnapping.

    I liked the movie even though I’m generally weary about Movies that are ‘Just the facts’ recantation of events(like United 93) that are both certain and inevitable.

    But Maria, I think your obvious dislike for Jolie(And I share this btw—she can be sooo irritating) is clouding your judgement about this film.Give it a chance—any way you look at it—It is well-acted and well-made.Sure it’s not as deep as the book but it’s still a good movie nevertheless.

    Agree w/you on Irfan Khan—He is excellent and there could’ve been more of him.You never feel like he’s acting ‘for the west'(Unlike for e.g: Om Puri & Nasseruddin Shah when they’ve appeared in mainstream Hollywood films).He’s as natural as ever and delivers a calm and assured performance.

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