Going in, I was fluctuating somewhere between bewilderment at such overwhelming audacity in the subtly manipulative blackfaced vanity project of Angelina Jolie (and hubby Brad Pitt) and a certain trepidation at how such a well soundbitten (and tragically patriotic?) story as the 2002 kidnapping and eventual beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl will be handled (or "covered") in today's quite insensitive (and equally indignant) all-about-the-box-office-benjamins world. Granted, the news media has already had their own insensitive and quite myopic hands shoved hip-high in the pot during the heydey of the original drama, but one still wonders what the cinema of stardom will do with such a tale. I walked into the theatre with not much hope in mind and very little expectations to talk of. I left that same theatre relatively unchanged in opinion, yet rather surprised at what I had just seen.
Surely far from a great film (and perhaps quite a bit away from good as well), A Mighty Heart still never sinks to the depths one would expect from such a possible powder keg film as this - and such results could have been disastrous (just watch last year's ridiculously schmaltzy Oliver Stone/Nicholas Cage driven World Trade Center for a recent example). One goes in (if one is as jaded as this critic) expecting to see scene after scene of Oscar clip after Oscar clip, without a care in the world about Danny Pearl or artistic integrity, but what one gets instead is a performance (by the titular mighty heart herself, Jolie) which so nearly fades into the background, that one would think this isn't even a vanity project after all. It is almost as if Jolie backs off and allows the story (God forbid in Hollywood! Aghast!!) to take center stage. One might expect that kind of thing from director Winterbottom (even with his tenuous peremptory filmmaking style) but to see it come from a paparazzi-laden mega star like Jolie (with producer/husband Pitt in tow) is quite the welcome surprise. The story is indeed the thing, which is quite apropos considering both Pearl's are (were) journalists and the final thing Danny Pearl did with his life was to try to get the story.
Unfortunately though, the story, which is often the case in such "real-life" dramas as this is given to nothing more than Movie-of-the-week effort. Let loose of its own vanity and the correlating tagline-happy confines of Hollywood (would the bad taste slogan "He Lost His Head But She Never Lost Her Heart" have been all that surprising to see on a poster if given its studio's druthers?) A Mighty Heart has been given the best of chances to break free from the dullsville mediocrity assembly-line production of many a past studio biopic, yet sadly enough (and it is even given an ultimately vain boost by the surprisingly low-key role of its major players) this film never manages to do quite that.
Even with neo-kitchen sinkist Michael Winterbottom as Pitt and Jolie's hired gun (his have-hand-held-camera-will-travel paycheck project?), the film never quite leaves the station - remaining relatively stationary even with all its creative nonfiction movement. Taking his usual bag of tricks (which only intermittently work anyway) and his usual technique of filmmaking (point hand-held camera at someone and when something dramatic happens, shake said camera with all your Cinéma Vérité might, rinse, repeat) Winterbottom creates something which actually visually works in blurring reality with fantasy, documentary with drama. Even with his oft-cited smugness, Winterbottom manages a well played, if not completely effective look, and does manage to keep one's thoughts away from the ego-stroking celebritydom that balances ever so precariously upon every single precipace of this film, and in doing so, brings this film back down to Earth.
And speaking of the media zeitgeist that is Angelina Jolie. One certainly does not expect any sort of Meryl Streep-esque chameleonic coup from the lady, but one must give props where props are deserved, and Jolie's surprisingly downplayed (smugless) performance as Mariane Pearl is deserving (at least somewhat) of those same said props. Putting aside all the minstral show barbs that have been aimed at this very pasty white woman playing the French/Dutch/Cuban Pearl (simultaneous blackfacing and whitewashing of Hollywood casting?), Jolie, skin darkened to a mulatto glow and hair ringletted to perfection (once all is said and done Jolie does resemble Pearl) manages to pull off a performance that is not completely without merit. How's that for a backhanded compliment? And with her blending into the background as she does, giving others in the cast a chance to shine (Irfan Khan, as the Pakistani cop is far and away the shining light of the ensemble cast), one begins to think that just perhaps this is not a movie whose sole purpose was to get its star another (unwarranted) Oscar - that is until the inevitable (and rather embarrassing) Oscar baity finale wherein Jolie pours out all her as-of-yet unspent emotion upon an anticipating audience in a crying jag of Best Actress-eyed proportions. My wife called this moment more mimicry than acting and I am inclined to agree, but then Jolie is not so much an actor as she is a star, and even though Mr. Pitt's ex was the first actress parlayed into (and out of) the lead role (just imagine Jennifer Aniston in the role and suddenly Jolie doesn't seem that far off target), it is Jolie's star quality, and all the hype that goes with said star quality, that makes her a relative fit (albeit a bit on the irregular side) for the glamourized (and a bit red carpety herself) Mariane Pearl.
In the end, Winterbottom (with his doc-leaning right brain making all nice with his hip left side) attempts to save this film from the intercontinental conglomoration circus sideshow that is Bradgelina Incorporated. Even Jolie herself attempts to downplay the whole shabang, but it is all in vain. Smartly exorcised of its vanity project demons, A Mighty Heart is still, at best, a mediocre film, starring a mediocre actress (but a stellar star by star standards), filmed by a mediocre director (with occasionally envisioned delusions of grandeur), with a mediocre hopes of Oscar (publicity department get rolling) and quite the mediocre outcome indeed. Sure, the film may not have been the exploitive star vehicle this admittedly jaded critic was expecting (and possibly even hoping for), but it is still too far from surprised perfection to rave home about. Noble in screed, valiant in affort, mediocre in outcome. [06/30/07]