Recently, I read that a prominent Hollywood studio chief announced, "We are no longer doing movies with women in the lead." His reason for making such a remarkably artless statement seems to have been that several of the studio's movies (with female leads) had underperformed at the box office. I mention this because Paramount's 2007 release "A Mighty Heart" also underperformed at the box office, returning little more than half of what it cost to make, but it likely had nothing to do with its lead, Angelina Jolie. In fact, "A Mighty Heart" is a very personal, very thoughtful, very good dramatic thriller based on a prominent real-life event, and any underperforming was surely do to causes other than the leading lady.
The film, directed by Michael Winterbottom ("Welcome to Sarajevo," "The Claim," "The Road to Guantánamo") deserved to do better than it did, so what happened? Perhaps it was because Ms. Jolie's star power was diminishing, but I doubt it. Perhaps it was because Ms. Jolie's character was pregnant throughout most of the film, but I doubt that was the issue, either. I see the problem as partly one with the title. The filmmakers based their movie on the book memoir by Mariane Pearl, so the title came with it. Yet the name "A Might Heart" reminds you of what? To me, it conjures up images of a Lifetime Channel special on the one hand and a Christopher Guest parody on the other. Would the film have done better under the same title if the filmmaker had somehow altered it to star Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, or Leonardo DiCaprio? Probably not. As unfair as it seems, I'm betting that the title alone turned off a lot of potential moviegoers.
Even more, the fact that the movie is a semidocumentary about the terrorist kidnapping and murder of journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, allegedly by Al-Qaeda, and that potential moviegoers who knew the headline story may not have cared to relive it probably didn't help the movie's box-office appeal. So, while the film had several things working against it, the fact that it starred a woman is probably not among them.
As it is, her role in "A Mighty Heart" may be the best part Ms. Jolie has ever had, and she gives it her best performance. She plays Mariane Pearl, a journalist with French Public Radio who was in Pakistan just after 9/11 with her husband Daniel Pearl, a bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, the two of them covering the war in Afghanistan. Danny was looking into possible terrorist ties when he went missing, and later a group calling themselves the National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty took credit kidnapping him. The Pakistani police, the U.S. Embassy, and the FBI helped Mariane investigate the crime, but a short time later they found Daniel Pearl murdered. It was a horrifying event for the individual tragedy involved and for the implications the killing had for journalists working all over the world in politically sensitive and dangerous areas.
Now, you'd think that so well known a story would be difficult to pull off in a film so soon after the actual event, but director Winterbottom manages to help us see it and understand it in a new light. He goes beyond the headlines to make us feel the pain of the participants, the suffering of the wife, and the dogged determination of the police in tracking down the culprits. Yes, the fact that the circumstances were still so conspicuous in the public consciousness might have turned off some moviegoers, but that doesn't deny the fact that the public missed a good movie. Maybe the film's DVD and HD DVD releases will rectify the situation somewhat.
Not that the movie is perfect. It's two major failings are, first, that despite Ms. Jolie's sterling performance, there is really no strong central character to hold the story together throughout. Mariane Pearl is certainly a vital character and the plot revolves around her plight, but she is not the primary investigator in the crime. Before long, the Pakistani Chief of CID, Captain Javed Habib (Irrfan Khan), takes over the detective work, and as he comes to command our attention and respect, the Mariane character becomes merely an observer. Second, what with the various police agencies looking into the offense and various characters--good and bad--coming and going, the plot sometimes gets a tad confusing. But if you stick with it, things clear up soon enough, and the story line isn't all that hard to follow.
Those issues aside, almost everything else in the film works pretty well. Winterbottom recreates the story's real-life events in a semidocumentary style, shooting on location in Pakistan, India, and France with a digital camera. Combined with his encouragement of the actors to adopt a kind of improvisational tone, it helps to lend a note of verisimilitude to the proceedings, as though the story could really be unfolding for real before our eyes.
Supporting players do their part in convincing us of the authenticity of the events, too: Dan Futterman as Daniel Pearl, mainly in flashbacks; Archie Panjabi as Asra Nomani, Mariane's friend and fellow journalist from India; the aforementioned Irrfan Khan as the CID Chief; Will Patton as Randall Bennett of the U.S. Embassy's Diplomatic Security Service, and so forth. They are all of them excellent and persuasive.
Yet it is Ms. Jolie's performance that towers above the rest and makes the movie most worthwhile. As the real-life character, Jolie projects concern, anger, anguish, frustration, sorrow, despair, and control by turns, yet she always remains realistically retrained, never over-the-top. It's quite remarkable, actually. Her climactic scene is so intense, it's hard to watch.
The story unfolds with compelling conviction and demonstrates the serious danger reporters experience in attempting to cover some of the world's most dangerous conditions. "A Mighty Heart" may be the most undeservedly overlooked movie of the year.
Here's the thing: Winterbottom chose, as I've said, to take a semidocumentary approach to his storytelling, and toward this end he shot the picture digitally, often with what appears to be a handheld camera. He did not mean for this film to look like "Lawrence of Arabia." What we get on HD DVD is an image that probably looks as much like what audiences originally saw in movie houses as possible. But that's not saying much. We do get the film's 2.35:1 aspect ratio and all of the film's original softness and grit. Since Winterbottom also did most of his filming on location, we get what appears to be a lot of scenes shot in natural light, leading to their being a bit dark and shadowy, without having very deep black levels or much depth of focus. Actual newsreel footage looks pretty grim, but most of the rest of the video is OK. Definition is only ordinary, and colors are a tad subdued, with a degree of pallor sometimes cast over facial features. Film grain, however, is generally absent. Still and all, through no fault of its own, this probably isn't the best picture to show off the glories of high-definition video.
Interestingly, on their simultaneous release of the blockbuster "Transformers," Paramount chose not to include a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track (space limitations probably), but on the largely dialogue-driven "A Mighty Heart" they do give us one. Go figure. Again, it seems like a waste, but who am I to argue. I'm just grateful they included the TrueHD track here at all. You won't find a lot of difference here between the TrueHD and the accompanying Dolby Digital Plus 5.1, though, because when most everything is speech, what is there to notice? However, I did have a small preference for the TrueHD track when it involved background music and environmental noises, because the THD sound seemed more evenly spread out among the front speakers and very slightly smoother overall.
There are three primary bonuses on the disc, the first of which is the thirty-minute featurette, "A Journey of Passion: The Making of A Mighty Heart." It's a standard making-of affair with the filmmakers, although it avoids much of the back-patting we usually see in these things. Next, there is a brief public-service announcement for the Pearl Foundation with newswoman Christiane Amanpour, followed by an eight-minute explanation of the Committee to Protect Journalists. These items are all in standard definition.
The extras wind down with thirteen scene selections but no chapter insert; a widescreen theatrical trailer in high def; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. As with other Paramount HD DVD releases, there are pop-up menus, an indicator of elapsed time, and an HD case.
The most obvious comparison I can make for this film is between it and Paul Greengrass's "United 93." Both movies take a semidocumentary approach in recreating real-life events surrounding recent tragedies. Both films present gripping retellings of the events, and both films avoid taking political sides. Certainly, the events themselves allow viewers to make up their own minds about who to blame and who to praise. Although I think "United 93" is the better of the two films in terms of its sheer drama and excruciating horror, I found both films dealt fairly and honestly with their subject matter and might serve well as companion pieces in documenting the turbulent times we live in.