In one of the early scenes in the new film “A Mighty Heart” about the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, Pearl’s wife Marianne, played by Angelina Jolie, and fellow journalist Asra Nomani have a lively debate with a group of young Pakistanis about US foreign policy. But just as the discussion picks up to reveal the conflicting perceptions of the US in the post 9/11 scenario, the camera follows Marianne Pearl out of the room as she makes yet another call to her husband who has not returned from a scheduled interview.
Although A Mighty Heart is set against the backdrop of the war on terror and Pakistani society, the film is Marianne Pearl’s story – a quality that gives it a strong emotional core but also the quality that makes it unsatisfying as the broader statement about terrorism and journalism that it so wants to be. These issues are there in the conversations and fleeting images, but as a distant backdrop to the couple’s story as told through nostalgic flashbacks of their life before Pakistan.
For two hours the camera follows Marianne Pearl as she awaits word on her husband during the harrowing five-week investigation into Pearl’s 2002 disappearance in Karachi. The investigators are misled, confused, but fiercely committed – led by an international team of both Pakistani police and FBI officials. There are seemingly incessant phone calls, leads, new promises of evidence, and disappointments – all interspersed with documentary style footage of Karachi’s chaotic urban landscape. Although officials eventually catch Pearl’s kidnappers, Pearl is found dead along with a graphic video showing his beheading – something that isn’t shown in the film but certainly present in the reactions of those who watch it.
At the center of the film is Jolie’s incredible performance as Marianne Pearl, the pregnant wife who dutifully holds onto the hope that her husband will somehow return amid the chaos and international scrutiny. Indian actor Irfan Khan (The Namesake) also gives a powerful performance as the chief Pakistani investigator assigned to the case. His character is central to the story and he is portrayed as a noble, moderate Muslim who serves as a foil to the jihadists responsible for Pearl’s murder.
This is the third film in a series of recent films by British director Michael Winterbottom on contemporary issues in the Muslim world – including In This World and Road to Guantanamo. Winterbottom’s films look and feel like documentaries more than standard feature films and it is refreshing to see a major Hollywood release during the summer display such political and visual independence. One of the great strengths of this film in particular is watching Pakistan portrayed on screen in a visually nuanced style – the camera lingering on small moments between rapid-fire images of traffic, storefronts and crowds.
But even though A Mighty Heart is well made and well acted, it is ultimately unsatisfying. Despite its balanced political tone, it feels incomplete and fails to leave the audience much to hold onto, especially considering the weight of the subject matter. The investigation is predictable and the portrayal of the relationship between the couple through nostalgic and hazy flashbacks is clich�. That said, at a time when BBC correspondent Alan Johnston is still missing in Gaza, A Mighty Heart serves as a stark reminder of the cost that journalists pay when they are caught in the crossfire of broader political and ideological conflicts.
Bilal Qureshi is a multimedia journalist and a 2007-2008 Kroc Fellow at National Public Radio. He is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism. A Mighty Heart opens in US theaters Friday.