Ever since Angelina Jolie won an Academy Award for her memorable role in Girl, Interrupted (1999), she has gradually gotten further and further away from the kinds of roles that won her that coveted accolade in the first place. And so it was with some anticipation that she would be returning to more challenging, interesting work with A Might Heart (2007), an adaptation of the memoir by Mariane Pearl about the kidnapping and death of her husband, journalist Daniel Pearl. Of course, there were the usual fears that this would merely be a vanity project for Jolie – a desperate attempt to reclaim Oscar glory yet again. However, the wild card thrown into the mix was the presence of British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom. He has the reputation of being something of a maverick, adept at all kinds of genres, be they literary adaptations (The Claim), period pieces (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story), biopics (24 Hour Party People) or politically-charged docu-dramas (The Road to Guantanamo). However, he also has the habit of turning them on their head in a way that polarizes critics and audiences. If anyone could get Jolie to shed her movie star persona it would be him.
The film is set in Pakistan as Daniel (Dan Futterman) is doing a story on the Taliban for the Wall Street Journal. One day, he goes off to interview a religious leader and never comes back. When he doesn’t return later that night, Mariane (Angelina Jolie) checks his email and tries to track down his contacts but with no success. The next day he is still missing and she starts calling anybody she can think of, eventually bringing in the local police. The film becomes an intense, Michael Mann-esque police procedural as local law enforcement, led by Captain (Irrfan Khan), turn the city upside down questioning anyone connected with Daniel or who helped set up the interview he was going to.
The Department of Justice and Diplomatic Security Service special agents are called in and a representative by the name of Randall Bennett (Will Patton) meets with Mariane in order to get her side of the story. She is also a journalist and does her own digging into the case. In a few days, she receives an email from the kidnappers who claim that Daniel is a CIA agent posing as a journalist while the local newspapers claim that he’s a Mossad agent just because he also happens to be Jewish. Mariane finds herself drowning in the political quagmire that is Pakistan as the authorities question Daniel’s methods and motivations.
Angelina Jolie does an excellent job as a woman barely keeping it together in the face of such uncertainty, not knowing if she will ever get to see her husband alive again while also dealing with being pregnant on top of everything else. She wisely underplays the role, resisting the urge to come on too strong by being showy and instead immersing herself in the part. Winterbottom helps her out, like in one scene where Mariane allows herself a moment to let it all out and break down. He refuses to go for the easy money shot close-up of Jolie’s teary, anguished face and instead opts for a long shot, letting her body language speak volumes about how she’s feeling.
Winterbottom’s hand-held camera careens through the crowded, claustrophobic streets of Karachi much like in the opening scenes of The Insider (1999) when Al Pacino’s character meets with the leader of the Hezbollah. Winterbottom creates an immediate, immersive experience as the sights and sounds of the city are everywhere. He also keeps everything grounded in reality with minimal use of music because of its ability to easily manipulate our emotions. A Mighty Heart feels like a personal project for Jolie but never seems like a vanity project because one never feels like she is grandstanding but rather is passionate about the subject matter and doing justice to it.