Brangelina inspired a paparazzi frenzy by decorating the red carpet at May’s Cannes Film Festival – he as one of the Ocean’s Thirteen gang, she as the star of A Mighty Heart, a devastating real-life drama that his company, Plan B, co-produced. Both stars made a pile squandering their talents on 2005’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith. But A Mighty Heart reveals and rewards their deeper ambitions. Jolie plays journalist Mariane Pearl, the widow of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman), who was kidnapped and murdered by jihadists in 2002.
Based on Mariane’s memoir, the film is given a raw and riveting docudrama treatment by the superb British director Michael Winterbottom, whose films – from Welcome to Sarajevo to 24 Hour Party People – are notable for their total absence of Hollywood bullshit. A Mighty Heart is no exception. From the moment Daniel and the pregnant Mariane arrive in Karachi, Pakistan – he wants to investigate the connection between shoe bomber Richard Reid and militant Islamic groups – Winterbottom exerts a grip that won’t let go.
Having arranged a meeting with the elusive Sheikh Gilani, Daniel is warned by Randall Bennett (Will Patton) of the U.S. consulate and the captain (Irrfan Khan) of Pakistan’s counterterrorism unit to stick to public places. Daniel calls a taxi to take him to an agreed-upon restaurant and is never heard from again. The film focuses on Mariane’s five-week search to find her husband, who is alternately accused of working for the CIA and Mossad. Headquartered in the home of Daniel’s colleague Asra (the excellent Archie Panjabi), Mariane begins an agonizing quest that only ends with the release of a video — “The Slaughter of the Spy-Journalist, the Jew Daniel Pearl — shown on TV at the time but wisely withheld by Winterbottom.
The film’s strict avoidance of exploitation and sensationalism only adds to the film’s emotional impact. In just a few scenes, Futterman – the acclaimed screenwriter of Capote – digs deeply into Daniel as a journalist and a man. But the film belongs to Jolie. She won an Oscar for 1999’s Girl, Interrupted, but this is by far her best performance, strong and true in every detail from Mariane’s accent (her roots are Dutch and Afro-Cuban) to the strength she shows under fire. Her total immersion in the role keeps the film from getting lost in the rush of details. Even after Daniel’s death and subsequent beheading, Mariane holds Daniel’s spirit close. Jolie sees to it that the humane and haunting A Mighty Heart honors that spirit.