Michael Winterbottom has become of this century’s most respected filmmakers in a short period of time. Winterbottom has worked out of England, producing films like 24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story which are well known in film circles but haven’t really crossed over to the mainstream. Winterbottom also has a political side to his work with films like The Road to Guantanamo and In This World. His newest film A Mighty Heart certainly deals with current events, but it is not a political film, in the sense that it does not push a political agenda. Instead it functions as a character study and ultimately as a tragedy.
The film tells the true story of Mariane (Angelina Jolie) and Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman), a husband and wife team of “Wall Street Journal” reporters doing a story in Karachi, Pakistan. Mariane is six months pregnant and both are planning to leave Pakistan as soon as Daniel makes one last interview. Unfortunately, Daniel Pearl does not return from this final interview, and it soon becomes clear that he has been kidnapped. The film then becomes a procedural about those trying to find Pearl.
Michael Winterbottom is part of a recent informal movement away from Hollywood style expressionism and toward a stark realistic vision. Other filmmakers making these kind of contemporary actualities are Paul Greengrass, and to a certain extent Michael Haneke. These filmmakers, often inspired by Werner Herzog, seem interested in using a documentary style to make narrative cinema. They shoot handheld, frequently using digital photography. A Mighty Heart is typical of this style, and bears a number of its strengths and weaknesses.
The film is an attempt to accurately document the events of the real world situation to a “T”. The film is almost a re-enactment of the investigation. I personally am not overly familiar with the details of what really happened, and though I can’t authoritatively say this film is accurate, I can say that it certainly feels accurate. The dialogue is down to earth and realistic, as are the sets and cinematography. The film is shot digitally and makes no attempts to hide this. Digital photography has replaced grainy 16mm film-stock as the format of choice when trying to evoke documentary style camera work. I have always had mixed feelings about digital photography, on one hand it simply doesn’t look as good as 35mm photography, and yet there is a certain allure to it. Digital photography seems to capture images much the same way the human eye does, it’s a very down to earth format, and it fits the kind of realism movies like this use.
The problem however, is that the details of the investigation that this film chronicles are not particularly interesting. The attempt to find Daniel Pearl is complicated, and a little bit convoluted. When the film is in procedural mode, it is hard to follow, confusing, and a little bit boring. I began to loose interest fairly quick, especially since we already know the outcome of this event. There are certainly events that have been compelling enough to make for engaging film subjects without being put through a Hollywood filter; this just wasn’t one of them.
What saves the movie is Angelina Jolie. Jolie gives a great, nuanced performance worthy of the praise it’s received. Jolie works hear wit a consistant and believable accent and has altered her look to fit the role. Jolie has a number of heart wrenching emotional scenes she must pull off without going over the top. It would be easy to over-act with this role, but Jolie avoids this temptation beautifully. The Mariane Pearl story works far better than the police procedural storyline; it’s what makes the film work.
What Michael Winterbottom has made is a film that’s hard to love, but impossible not to respect. There’s little here to really fault, Jolie’s performance is great and the rest of the cast is good too. The script is detailed and subtle, the editing is great, and the directing is great. Unfortunately, all this talent is being put toward a story that just didn’t interest me very much.
*** out of Four