Should you be so inclined, it won’t take you long to find the infamous video of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl being beheaded by Pakistani militants on the internet. But you won’t see it in A Mighty Heart, Michael Winterbottom’s tense reconstruction of Pearl’s 2002 kidnapping and murder, and the film is all the better for it. Concentrating instead on his pregnant wife Mariane’s attempts to secure his release in the weeks leading up to his death, the Road To Guantanamo director has fashioned a grim, taut docudrama with the urgency, verisimilitude and forensic eye for detail that have become his stocks in trade. By ensuring Angelina Jolie’s Mariane remains just one part of his tight-knit, fluid ensemble, meanwhile, he stops her Hollywood persona unbalancing a film that, like United 93 before it, manages to find dignity and humanity even amidst the horror and heartbreak.
Given Jolie’s involvement in front of the camera and Brad Pitt’s behind it, there was always a danger of this well-meant project becoming just one more episode in the Brangelina soap opera. What mitigates against this is the startling assurance of Jolie’s performance, an accomplishment all the more impressive given the myriad obstacles (baby bump, darkened skin, an obscure Franco-Cuban accent) she had to negotiate. It’s undoubtedly her best work since Girl, Interrupted, though it’s merely on a level with a cast that, from Will Patton’s ineffectual diplomat and Irrfan Khan’s dedicated police officer to Dan Futterman as Danny himself, doesn’t put a foot wrong.
Location footage taken of a teeming Karachi, meanwhile, casts the city itself as a player in the unfolding saga, its bustling chaos a visual correlative to the Jihadist madness that will shortly claim Pearl as its next victim. As climaxes go the payoff is one hell of a downer – and it could be the reason for the movie’s lacklustre business Stateside. Let it deter you, though, and you will miss out on a vital, fiercely intelligent thriller whose integrity can hardly be faulted.