A Mighty Heart

A Mighty Heart


Reviewed by: Chris

A Mighty Heart is one of those films where it seems in a way inappropriate to say whether it is good or bad: it just... is.

Michael Winterbottom is getting better and better at creating a style of cinema that just observes a story without adding or subtracting anything. His films are perhaps better seen in series.

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9 Songs calmly observed a physical, sexual relationship and a love of popular music. Instead of trying to say something deep, it just observed. Similarly, with Welcome to Sarajevo, he focussed on emotional elements that didn't involve taking sides, but nevertheless gave us a window to help us make up our own minds. He tries to do what a good reporter does: present what is happening honestly and without any slant.

Of course, that lack of bias is in some ways an ideal to be aimed at rather than something that can ever be achieved. A Mighty Heart forms part of his triplet of films about Middle Eastern politics. In This World - a fictitious tale told like a documentary - gave us the journey of two Afghani refugees to London. Although it is fiction, it sometimes seems more accurate than much non-fiction reporting. The Road to Guantanamo continued the half-documentary, half-drama tradition. In dealing with a subject over which the US is frequently criticised, it would be easy to read anti-Americanism into it where none existed. A Mighty Heart, if anything, strays to the other side of the knife edge. It tells the story of the horrible abduction of a western reporter in Karachi.

The Pakistani authorities use torture to try and find the perpetrators. Is it justified, we now ask, when the life of someone we care about is at stake?

If remaining without any bias is an impossible task, Winterbottom at least clings close enough to the knife-edge to make us believe in his good intentions. It was this that increased my respect for him while watching this movie. There are worthy proponents on both sides of most heated debates. I take sides sometimes. But often - like many people, I suspect - I simply have what I hope is an intelligent interest in a controversial issue. I want to learn more rather than make up my mind too soon. And I think cinema, by fleshing out the ideas, can help us explore them. Give us a territory, a virtual reality in which we can test ideas. Things, after all, can be so much more complicated once human emotions enter the picture.

The human emotions in A Mighty Heart are ratcheted up by Angelina Jolie, who kindly shows us some of the Oscar power she demonstrated in Girl Interrupted instead of her more frequent vanity-project acting. I've nothing against entertaining films, and she has made a lot of them. But after Lara Crofts, Sky Captain add-ons, Mrs Smiths, and even the minor flourish of The Good Shepherd, I felt a sense of loss each time I watched her. Here was an actor of colossal ability who seemed uninterested in her own talent. If nothing else, I sincerely hope the public response to her role in A Mighty Heart will enthuse Ms Jolie to take on the more substantial cinema of which she is so eminently capable.

Jolie is Mariane Pearl. Wife to Daniel Pearl, the reporter who gets snatched. Pregnant. French. Also a dedicated reporter. Jolie moulds herself into the complex character to show a steely level of professional control, a passionate and unsaccharine devotion to husband, and reserves of steel and optimism in deference to her unborn child. There is no prancing about. She commits to the role and delivers.

Viewers new to Winterbottom's films may feel a bit taken aback by Karachi. It is a gritty, no-nonsense view of this sprawling city. And yes, he went there to film it. The closest I've ever been is Delhi, next door in India - a world away. Yet I felt some of that lowest-common-denominator reality that pervades an impoverished society. Unlike many TV docudramas that intersperse each shot with idyllic contemplative music or patronising voice-overs, Winterbottom gets on with things. This isn't supposed to happen. Such third-world realism is supposed to have long slow takes. So we can catch up with what is happening - from the safety and leisure of our Western mindset. So straight off you have to pay attention or you'll miss pertinent details.

Part of me was asking, why should I? It didn't have the current news appeal of Road to Guantanamo. Neither were there any loud explosions, obvious emotional dramas, or any of the other common tricks used to make an audience pay attention. But I was in the cinema - not in front of the TV - so I reserved judgement and started paying close attention anyway.

I'm pleased I did. There was one cliche (if I'm nitpicking). I do find it annoying when someone brings home a grocery bag of foodstuffs and there is always a French breadstick poking out of the top a regulation 6 inches for the camera. But other than that, it had the refreshing honesty of Winterbottom at his best. Yet in its dedication to cross-cultural understanding, the film's take on terrorism is a tad simplistic. Yes, where there are people living in poverty, terrorist groups are more likely to flourish. But that's a bit like saying weeds are more likely to grow in fertile soil. The poverty is the fertile soil, not the cause.

My other concern - rather than criticism - is the way this style of filmmaking leaves questions unanswered. What, at the end of the day, are we to make of the unpalatable question of torture (when it is used to save lives)? I am struck by a leader in The Economist as I mull over the film with a bedtime drink. 'Dozens of plots may have been foiled and thousands of lives saved as a result of some of the unsavoury practices now being employed in the name of fighting terrorism. Dropping such practices in order to preserve freedom may cost many lives. So be it.' Reserving judgement, as Winterbottom does so elegantly (and to his credit), has its limitations. Yet for all its fence-sitting, the film still makes for more intellectually stimulating viewing than Murdoch-owned newsreels on the same topics.

Reviewed on: 23 Sep 2007
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Docudrama about the hunt for kidnapped journalist Daniel Pearl, based on the book by his widow.
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Read more A Mighty Heart reviews:

The Exile ***

Director: Michael Winterbottom

Writer: John Orloff, based on the book by Mariane Pearl

Starring: Dan Futterman, Angelina Jolie, Archie Panjabi, Mohammed Afzal, Mushtaq Khan, Daud Khan, Telal Saeed, Arif Khan, Tipu Taheer, Amit Dhawan, Saira Khan

Year: 2007

Runtime: 100 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: USA, UK


EIFF 2007

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If you like this, try:

In This World