Michael Winterbottom’s films are like a Sunday paper: sprawling in focus yet at the same time identifiable in their look and feel and delivered regularly – barely a year passes without another one coming along. There’s an element of unpredictability to them: you don’t know whether you’re going to be attracted to the culture section (‘A Cock and Bull Story’), the news review supplement (‘Welcome to Sarajevo’) or one of those confessional tales of life in the modern city (‘Wonderland’).
What you do know is that a film by Winterbottom will be defined by its lightness of touch, its daring and its desire to get right to the heart of the matter. His latest is an energetic reconstruction of the disappearance of Wall Street Journal writer Daniel Pearl in Karachi in early 2002 and the weeks that followed, during which his French wife, Mariane (Angelina Jolie), endured a fraught investigation until the discovery that her kidnapped husband had been decapitated. It’s Winterbottom’s first collaboration with Hollywood, but this doesn’t appear to have made much difference beyond an evident recourse to more money; there’s a certain slickness here. With its extensive location-work, use of archive footage and its journalistic attention to detail and a visual style that reflects news footage and documentaries, ‘A Mighty Heart’ could be seen as completing a trilogy that includes 'In This World’ and ‘Road to Guantanamo’. It’s comparable, perhaps, to ‘United 93’ in that it dramatises a recent calamity of terror, although it’s much less scientific in its approach and without the conjecture of Greengrass’ film. Laurence Coriat’s script adapts Mariane Pearl’s memoir of the same name; her experience is the film’s main concern.
Jolie surprises as Mariane, portraying her deftly as a calm, intelligent presence unfazed by the varying attitudes to her husband’s disappearance held by the FBI and the Pakistani security services. Different ideas and prejudices collide in the search for him. Before the kidnapping, Winterbottom presents the chaos of Karachi as Pearl (Dan Futterman) fights his way around the city researching possible Pakistani links to British ‘shoe bomber’ Richard Reid. Within 15 minutes, he is gone and the rest of the film leads to the discovery of his murder.
Winterbottom adopts a war-room approach, basing the story in the Pearls’ bustling Karachi home. This scenario is punctuated with brief interludes elsewhere, such as flashes of Pakistani forces torturing a suspect. The film is speedy and never lingers. Edits are fast and close-ups are abundant. Smartly, we don’t see Pearl being kidnapped or his incarceration (apart from a reconstruction of a few moments of his captors’ notorious tape). We gain an insight into the Pearls’ life together from flashbacks and of their life apart from both the terrible, wrenching screams that the pregnant Pearl lets out hearing of her husband’s death and the final shot of her walking alone with her child down a quiet Paris street.