The latest depressing pseudo-documentary about current affairs, the Angelina Jolie vehicle, “A Mighty Heart,” opens with shots of a sprawling, overwhelming cityscape. The viewer is dropped squarely in the center of Karachi, Pakistan, the second most-populated city in the world, with an impossible question: “How do you find one man amongst all this?”
Anyone familiar with the gruesome story of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and brutally slain on videotape in Karachi in 2002, knows the unfortunate answer. But “A Mighty Heart,” adapted from Mariane Pearl’s autobiography of the same name, attempts to explain the frantic, month-long search for Pearl from a different point of view. Mariane Pearl, an Afro-Cuban Dutch Jew raised in Paris, was five months pregnant when her husband was kidnapped. She remains a journalist and world traveler, unfazed by terrorist intimidation.
The film tells the story from her powerful female perspective. This kind of performance requires a magnetic, compelling actress. Enter Angelina Jolie, in full pregnancy regalia, with darkened skin, brown contact lenses, a curly brown wig and a labored French accent. Both Jolie and Pearl have experienced grief, motherhood and paparazzi hounds, so the casting choice isn’t as odd as it may seem. However, Jolie presents a few problems.
The first is that the most skilled makeup artist cannot conceal Jolie’s luscious, exaggerated lips, which are incredibly distracting. However, there remains a much bigger problem: Although Jolie has been given the perfect canvas for the performance of her career, she fails to be truly compelling.
The character of Mariane Pearl requires both near-perfect casting and a virtuoso performance. Jolie is a terrific actress, and the viewer wants her to excel at this performance as much as the film needs her to. Demonstrating her trademark crackling energy, Jolie huffs around the house, snaps at the supporting cast, represses her grief over the loss of her husband and finally erupts in an excruciating, climactic howl. It is a noble effort. However, Jolie’s seething performance as Lisa in “Girl, Interrupted” is much more magnetic and believable. Seven years later, no amount of makeup can eclipse Jolie’s own personality, and in every scene, she cannot escape the celebrity she has herself become. Even if she could, she would still not be compelling enough.
That’s a shame, because director Michael Winterbottom excels at capturing the frantic, pulsating rhythm of Karachi. The stunning cinematography, accompanied by the loose, improvised script, makes the crisis feel all the more immediate. The supporting cast is also outstanding in every respect. Especially noteworthy is Irfan Khan’s performance as the captain of the Diplomatic Security Service, who, in one remarkable scene, tenderly interrogates a handcuffed, dangling suspect with fatherly empathy.
Despite its many strengths, “A Mighty Heart” needs a compelling main character to differentiate it from the recent slew of political thrillers, which lately seem to have the cinematic shelf life of skim milk. This film’s central character, Mariane Pearl, is also its greatest weakness. Because of that, “A Mighty Heart” is ultimately forgettable.