Movie review: Jolie strong, but this ‘Heart’ should have been mightier

Al Alexander/Patriot Ledger

Two ear-piercing screams; those are what you remember most about “A Mighty Heart,” Michael Winterbottom’s quietly respectful tribute to Daniel and Mariane Pearl, the married journalists who went to Pakistan in 2002 to cover the news and wound up becoming it.

The first wail, and the one that may well win Angelina Jolie a second Oscar, occurs when Mariane learns that her kidnapped husband, a respected reporter for The Wall Street Journal, has been slain by jihadists. The other, when she gives birth to their son Adam – just three months after Daniel’s barbaric beheading.

What unites those divergent emotions is Mariane’s courage and strength. Here is a woman who had every right to be angry and bitter at the world in general and fanatical Muslims in particular.

Yet, she chose to funnel her grief into something positive, writing a book that emphasized the love and cooperation she received from a melting pot of supporters of various religions and dogmas, all united in their desire to bring Daniel back alive.

It was not to be, of course, but the level of unity his kidnapping created during her time in Karachi leaves you believing there’s still hope in the world. And that’s exactly the message Winterbottom wants you to take from “A Mighty Heart,” a film that courageously forgoes sensationalism (thankfully we’re spared the coup de grace) and politics to accentuate the positive.

Normally I’d applaud such restraint, but with “A Mighty Heart” it works as a detriment, robbing the film of any sense of urgency even when Daniel’s life hangs in the balance.

That’s always the caveat with docudramas like this that stress realism over emotion.

Sometimes they work, like with “United 93,” the holy grail of post-9/11 pics. But mostly they leave you feeling detached and, worse, uninvolved like “A Mighty Heart.”

Sure, it means well. It even makes persuasive arguments for resolving the world’s divisiveness through words, not weapons. But Winterbottom and writer John Orloff (“Band of Brothers”) forget that the No. 1 objective of any film is to entertain, even when the subject matter is as sobering as this.

Which makes you wonder what value they saw in couching the film as a procedural thriller, emphasizing every step of the search and investigation into Daniel’s disappearance even though we’re fully aware of the story’s grim outcome.

They also make the mistake of focusing all their energy not on Daniel, but on Mariane, as she coolly and calmly holes up with friends, colleagues and U.S. and Pakistani officials brainstorming about Daniel’s whereabouts and with whom his captors might be affiliated.

Some of these scenes are tense, not to mention fascinating. But after awhile they begin to take on a sameness that causes the film to drag when it should have us riveted.

And what of Daniel? What was he going through during all this? Who are his captors and what is their agenda, other than calling for the release of terrorist suspects incarcerated at Gitmo? He’s barely a part of his own story.

Played by dead-ringer Dan Futterman (the Oscar-nominated writer of “Capote”), Daniel only makes sporadic appearances in flashbacks to illustrate his and Mariane’s devotion and in the film’s opening moments, when he debates whether to agree to a secret meeting with a shadowy figure that might be connected to shoe-bomber Richard Reid.

The scene in which Daniel takes that final cab ride to his meeting with destiny is powerful and haunts long after you’ve seen the movie. But that and Mariane’s dichotomous screams are the only moments the film truly connects.

The rest of the time, you’re merely admiring, both Winterbottom’s slavish attention to detail (much of it was actually filmed in Karachi at great risk of peril) and Jolie’s remarkable performance.

Given her ubiquitous tabloid presence, it would seem impossible for such an overly familiar face to completely disappear into a character. But Jolie does it, even capturing the bastardized accent that resulted from Mariane’s mixed French, Dutch and Afro-Cuban heritage.

Futterman is equally strong, putting a very human face on Daniel, despite being allotted only a handful of scenes.

Still, as much as you respect their work, and that of their largely unknown international costars, it’s hard not to feel that Winterbottom’s “Heart” should have been bigger, not to mention mightier, especially when it concerns two people who sacrificed so much for so little.