Imagine that the one you love is dead. Imagine that they died violently. It’s instinct to recoil from thoughts like these – the best refuge from death is not to think about it. But if it happened… what then? This is the scene that A Mighty Heart beholds. There are flaws in the film, and much that didn’t move me, but when Angelina Jolie (playing Mariane Pearl) learns that her husband is dead, her reaction is so true that it’s hard to watch. She screams. It’s not a scream of fright, or rage or even grief (at this stage). To tie emotion to the sound is not to hear it, and we are made to listen: it’s the sound of loss.
In 2002 Daniel and Mariane Pearl were dispatched on assignment by the Wall Street Journal to cover the war in Afghanistan. When the war was over they crossed the border into Pakistan where Daniel began investigating Pakistani terrorists with links to the shoe-bomber Richard Reid. One night, while on his way to meet a prospective source, Daniel disappeared. A Mighty Heart is based Mariane Pearl’s memoir of that time which recounts events before, during and after the hunt for Daniel’s kidnappers.
Director Michael Winterbottom is probably the right choice to tell a story like this. I say “probably” because I am never sure what to think of Michael Winterbottom. He has made many good movies, but never a great one. I’ll admit (while I’m prepared to be contradicted) I don’t think he has a great movie in him. His movies are brisk, intelligent, well-crafted and – missing something. To know what it is you have to watch the movies of Paul Greengrass. Why does United 93 stick with me and not Welcome to Sarajevo? The probable answer is that I’m too soft for his cerebral brand of film-making. I want what Greengrass does: provocation. Winterbottom specialises in taking emotive subjects and engaging with them head-first, heart-second. Everything looks right, but nothing moves you. His approach is like watching a news story, you feel the professionalism, but there’s never the risk of embarrassment that makes for great art.
A Mighty Heart gains and loses from Winterbottom’s direction in that – while everything is believable – the movie doesn’t grip the viewer the way it should. We watch Mariane Pearl behave with admirable grace under pressure, in a performance from Angelina Jolie that shows great maturity and restraint. But what we don’t feel is worry. The movie is contained in a way Mariane Pearl appeared contained only on the surface. Until she screams, there is never the feeling that everything is wrong. I think of David Cronenberg making this movie, that palpable unease that he does so well. Even if he isn’t the right fit, his signature ambiance is right for the search. This is a horror story.
To take up the counter-argument: you could say that Winterbottom made the movie this way because we wanted a record of events, and to communicate Mariane Pearl’s avowed belief that an act of terrorism does not behove its victims to be terrorised. I have nothing but respect for either intent. But I don’t think either intent is negated by showing fear. On the contrary, the point at which any audience anywhere can connect with this movie is in its premise: a missing loved one, the frantic search. By never allowing something as homely as worry to enter A Mighty Heart, the film-makers capture the moment but not the prevailing mood.
Angelina Jolie’s scream is so guttural – so wrenched – at the end that you want to look away. There is nothing sad about it. Nothing a word as gentle as “sad” could describe. It’s as if her arm has been torn off. The movie does well to end soon after that scene. There is nothing that could make an audience feel better after having seen it. That is, unfortunately, the knowledge we must live with when confronting terrorism – how nothing speaks to loss.