Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart (IMDB) belongs to the same genre of post-9/11 political docudramas as United 93 and World Trade Center, with its hyperrealist attempts to revisit a past tragedy, in this case the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. The film features the trademark hyperkinetic, handheld style common to these films, what I described in my United 93 review as a “docu-thriller” style. This docu-thriller style poses certain risks. By appearing to present history as it happens, the docu-thriller becomes an important factor in contributing to the ongoing historical narrative of our post-9/11 moment (of course, the filmmakers open themselves up to criticism when they inevitably get this history wrong). In addition, the filmmakers also open themselves up to criticism for turning important historical events and personal tragedies into consumable entertainment.
Pearl’s kidnapping is seen primarily through the eyes of his wife, Mariane (Angelina Jolie), also a journalist, and seven months pregnant with their first child when Pearl is kidnapped, creating the slightly alienating effect of turning Pearl’s story, perhaps unwittingly, into a star vehicle for Jolie. In fact, given Jolie’s widely publicized humanitarian efforts, it becomes doubly impossible to separate the actress from the performance, to allow Jolie to disappear completely into the role. I don’t think this casting issue necessarily has to be a flaw. Casting can often provide us with a shorthand method for reading and interpreting characters, and Jolie’s “internationalism” maps relatively neatly onto Pearl, and her tendency to play independent, strong-willed characters also helps to characterize Pearl. The casting of Jolie, however, reminds us most that she is the film’s star in that few of the other cast members will be familiar to the North American and British audiences who are most likely to watch the film (even Daniel Pearl is played by relative unknown Dan Futterman).
As I have suggested, the docu-thriller genre often has the effect of bringing us too close to the action. Inevitably, Hollywood films about current events will have to make choices about what to include, and these choices quite frequently play up dramatic tension, traditional romance, and other narrative features. In the case, of A Mighty Heart, this narrowing of scope has the effect of translating Daniel into a relatively unknown character, turning him into a bland, dull character with little personality (as Asra Nomani points out in her editorial on the film–more on this topic later). It also chooses to emphasize certain frames or certain questions at the expense of others, and while A Mighty Heart does depict the tireless effort of Pearl’s colleagues and friends in the efforts to find Daniel, the film seems to stop short of saying anything too specific about the “war on terror.” In short, the film stops short of being too political.
In his previous film, The Road to Guantanamo, a documentary about the experiences of the Tipton Three, Winterbottom courted controversy by using re-enactements to depict scenes of torture in the prison in Guantanamo. However, A Mighty Heart seems less willing to take on the politics of terrorism, instead operating as a serviceable thriller from which we can recover yet another narrative of heroism in the face of danger. This is not to deny the fact that Daniel and Mariane Pearl weren’t operating in Pakistan at significant personal risk, but I wonder if it does point to a representational limit of the docu-thriller, at least as it has been used to narrate these post-9/11 histories. It’s also worth pointing out that the film isn’t devoid of politics (which would, of course, be impossible). The film is pointedly critical of one Pakistani investigator’s use of torture to elicit information from one of the suspects in the kidnapping. It also generally avoids depicting all Pakistanis as unknowable Others, although the film does seem to create a contrast between the safe haven of Nomani’s home (where the Pearls were living when Daniel was kidnapped) and the streets of Karachi, which are often depicted at night, crowded with men (and very few women) who may or may not be a threat.
My reaction to A Mighty Heart has been influenced, perhaps unfairly, by Nomani’s Washington Post article on the film. In the editorial, Nomani discusses the uncanny experience of watching a character based on herself and her initial disappointment at being demoted from a colleague of the Pearls (though Nomani chalks that up to Hollywood’s “creative license”), but I think her larger points about how the film becomes a star vehicle for Angelina Jolie and how the film works to turn them into “ordinary heroes” are worth heeding (it’s also worth noting here that Paramount is promoting A Mighty Heart with a contest inviting people to nominate an ordinary hero and win a trip to the Bahamas). At one point, Nomani describes this new narrativization as “having people enter my home, rearrange the furniture and reprogram my memory.” She then criticizes the film for taking the “easy” path in its search for “ordinary heroes.” I think she’s basically right here. We need new ways of making sense of these events.
Update: David Lowery offers a somewhat more generous reading of A Mighty Heart, arguing that the film demonstrates a certain degree of honesty in acknowledging its status as a Hollywood star vehicle.