The harrowing images of Benazir Bhutto's assassination bring to light the pervasive instability of Pakistan's political system, and even though over five years have elapsed since The Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl's kidnapping and murder, director Michael Winterbottom has captured a frenetic, scarifying atmosphere in this 2007 film that feels as current as the latest news on CNN. I cannot imagine the unrelenting nightmare Mariane Pearl, five months pregnant, must have felt for those endless weeks back in early 2002 when her husband was being held hostage by radical Islamic terrorists in Karachi. Winterbottom, along with screenwriter John Orloff, brings visceral life to her stunning 2003 memoir by taking a docudrama approach similar to Paul Greengrass' immensely powerful United 93 and applying it to her disheartening experience. This lends a halting realism to the film but at a price since it also obscures some of the narrative flow as a result.
The story begins on the day of Daniel Pearl's disappearance when he arranged to meet with a Muslim cleric named Sheikh Gilani for an interview. After a discombobulating ride through the teeming urban jungle of Karachi, it becomes clear it was a set-up for his capture. We see the chaotic unfurling of events and the agonizing realization of a desperate situation through Mariane's eyes. Surrounding her is a coterie of colleagues and friends, as well as the local police, all of whom are looking for clues to his disappearance as Mariane attempts to be the model of preternatural composure. Although we all know how it will end, Winterbottom manages to drive the race against the clock with urgent propulsion, even when he does sacrifice plot clarity at key moments for the sake of pacing. What does become clear is the dawning revelation that journalists have become attractive targets for terrorists and the seeming intractability of regional mistrust, in particular, between Pakistan and India, when it come to the inevitable finger-pointing around the kidnapping. The resulting ambiguity and disarray in the investigation can be frustrating to track, but it does feel true to what went on at the time.
Given the constant barrage of her off-screen notoriety, it's easy to forget how compelling an actress Angelina Jolie can be when challenged to do her best. Probably for the first time since 1999's Girl, Interrupted, she completely inhabits a character and captures Mariane down to the idiosyncratic, murmuring French-Cuban accent and curly mop of hair. The difference this time is that she does it with understated nuance rather than bravura turns. Only once does she release her inner pain with primal force, and the climactic scene is all the more powerful for the subtlety that precedes it. The superb Irfan Khan (the quietly authoritative father in Mira Nair's The Namesake) makes his moments count as the local intelligence officer leading the investigation. Smaller contributions are effectively made by Archie Panjabi as a reporting colleague who becomes into Mariane's confidante, Will Patton as the sympathetic ambassador, and Dan Futterman primarily in flashback as Daniel.
Thanks to the sure hands involved, Mariane's story is a tribute to the power of the human spirit in the face of terrorism. The translation to film could have been easily sensationalized into a clarion call for anti-Islamic hatred, but like her book, it remains remarkably controlled and free of self-pity. The 2007 DVD is short on extras but includes a half-hour making-of featurette, "A Journey of Passion: The Making of `A Mighty Heart'", pretty standard in format but enlightening in is display of Winterbottom's seemingly free-form filmmaking approach. Beyond the original theatrical trailer and a few previews, the extras include a brief public-service announcement for the Pearl Foundation with CNN's Christiane Amanpour and a short video of the Committee to Protect Journalists.