Mariane Pearl's stunning, devastating 2003 memoir, A Mighty Heart, about the questing life and shocking murder of her husband, Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl, operates on two distinct levels. On the surface, Pearl weaves an unbearably tense, tortuous account of her own desperate search for answers surrounding Daniel's abduction -- and her ability (with the help of many government aides) to vivisect Karachi, Pakistan, by cutting a violent swath right through the heart of the city and unearthing not a few, but dozens of terrorist operatives and intermediaries. On a deeper level, however, the work etches out a touching and resonant portrait of an almost symbiotic nuptial relationship -- typified by Mariane's assertion that she and Daniel had begun to instinctively share one another's feelings (even during their geographic estrangement), and particularly by the extent to which the Pearls managed to actualize the concluding vow of their marriage covenant. "We promise," they wrote, "each to treasure the other's happiness at least as much as our own, to support each other's creativity, and always to keep faith in the strength of the other's love." Within the text, the reader's deep and intimate understanding of the multifaceted nature of the Pearls' relationship adds dimension and nuance (a poignancy and a weight) to the search for Daniel -- and, in the process, heightens the suspense of that search in spite of the known resolution -- the fact that Pakistani militants ultimately decapitated Pearl (mistaking him for a Mossad agent) and dismembered his body.
In their 2007 film adaptation, producer Brad Pitt, director/co-writer Michael Winterbottom, and co-writer Laurence Coriat deliver on the first level, but fail to recreate the second cinematically. It is conceivable that someone unfamiliar with the intricacies of Mariane's memoir could be dumbfounded by the details of the onscreen search -- as Middle Eastern characters whiz by and events are referred to with lightning rapidity -- but the film's creators deserve credit for never losing the through line of the narrative; even if we cannot always identify, say, Sheikh Gilani or Omar Saeed, Winterbottom and Coriat keep events lucid enough for us to generally follow the progress of the investigation. And on that level, the film works as a political thriller, and a docudrama of the highest order. It is abetted throughout by Winterbottom's ability to catch the frantic pace of the text via frequent handheld cinematography, the smooth interpolation of stock footage of Pakistan, and rapidly paced dialogue and cutting -- and by utterly stellar supporting performances from character actors Denis O'Hare and Will Patton.
Unfortunately, the film offers virtually no insight into the inner dynamic of the Pearls' relationship, and here it misses the very spirit -- the inner vitality -- of the book. Winterbottom attempts to compensate for this with a handful of flashbacks to Daniel (Dan Futterman) and Mariane (Angelina Jolie) experiencing moments of intimacy (enhanced to some degree by Harry Escott and Molly Nyman's piano score), but the film could benefit immensely from a longer, deeper, and more resonant exploration of Daniel and Mariane's relationship -- either prior to the coverage of his abduction, or via more extensive flashbacks.
The picture suffers, as well, from Jolie's lackluster performance. She is, simply put, miscast -- she's much too polished for the multiethnic, expectant Mariane Pearl, and she reflects glamour and gloss in every shot -- as if she's ready to walk right off the set and pose for the cover of Vogue or In Style. (In the book, Mariane indicated a significant loss of sleep and physical suffering that almost drove her into early contractions -- shouldn't we glimpse this via a dramatic shift in Jolie's appearance?) But more problematically, Jolie utterly and completely fails to display necessary emotional nuances and inner evolution of her character. She plays Mariane Pearl as a sort of tabula rasa -- an ice-water-veined woman, so emotionally guarded as to render herself virtually impenetrable to outsiders. Projecting a vague aura of cockiness and indignity, she acts like a bitchy, spoiled-rotten princess and does virtually nothing to involve us in her plight; it is an interesting conceit, but does little to engage the audience. Consequently, Jolie's histrionic breakdown at the end of the film when she learns of Daniel's murder (screaming maniacally -- not just once, as indicated in the book, but multiple times; pounding her fists on the walls violently) seems that much more misaligned with everything that has come before it, and suggests that Jolie perhaps read Mariane as a woman unable to even explore or project the contours of her feelings until tragedy drove her to the point of emotional breakdown -- an idea not underscored by Mariane Pearl's self-insights in the book. When Jolie does give us emotional transitions upon receiving a devastating or discouraging piece of news, Winterbottom continually interrupts the fluidity and continuity of those transitions via his decision to use jump cuts to depict Mariane's massive leaps from one emotional stage to the next -- either as a stylistic flourish or, more likely, a necessity. The film's epilogue represents a missed opportunity. Mariane Pearl wrapped up the text by discussing at length the extent to which her baby represented a victory for herself and her late husband, and absorbed Daniel's strength. ("Mon amour," Mariane tells her newborn son, "It is fine by me if you want to change the world.") But Winterbottom and co. never establish this.
Watching the film (less than a week after reading the book), a complaint continually leapt to my mind from one of Peter Bogdanovich's memoirs (in reference to another film) that captures perfectly the central problem of A Mighty Heart: "They left out the laughter and the love. How could they have known?" The problem is that, in this instance, they should have known; the story was already told with beatific, haunting resonance over four years ago, but on an adaptive level, the movie's creators appear to have missed half of the equation by only absorbing the surface of the text and missing the heart (a fact that makes the movie's title that much more ironic). Jolie's performance aside, the material that is handed to us works satisfactorily on its own terms, but those who are genuinely interested in the full story of Daniel Pearl would be well advised to make a beeline for the library and read Mariane Pearl's dazzling account prior to seeing the film -- it constitutes a much richer experience.