Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was abducted and beheaded in 2002 by a terrorist group in Pakistan, was known for hauling the same old Barcalounger to whatever far-flung places he was stationed for his job. (His posthumous collection of writings was appropriately titled At Home In The World.) That attitude is the key to understanding his wife Mariane, a fellow journalist whose strength and composure in the tense days when her husband's fate was still uncertain—not to mention the weeks, months, and years after his death—stifled the worry and grief that roiled under the surface. Based on Mariane's book of the same name, Michael Winterbottom's A Mighty Heart depicts her as foremost an idealistic citizen of the world, uncowed by Jihadist fear-mongering, and convinced that open dialogue is the route to peace. Of course, the pressing question with this film is whether Angelina Jolie's lead performance would be read as a tribute to one woman's courage, or an unseemly vanity project.
In a way, Winterbottom and Jolie successfully answer this question by dodging it. Save for one volcanic scene, Jolie's Mariane focuses intently and solely on doing everything she can to bring her beloved back home. Shot in the rough-and-tumble vérité style of Winterbottom's Welcome To Sarajevo and The Road To Guantanamo, A Mighty Heart is a procedural that begins the day of Daniel's kidnapping and ends with its tragic conclusion. In between, Winterbottom dives into the urgent struggle to find him in Karachi, a sprawling city of 14 million people where it's infinitely easier to get lost than found. Working with the Pakistani and American authorities, as well as a pair of Daniel's editors and friends at The Wall Street Journal, Mariane labors ceaselessly to find him, all while six months pregnant with their first child.
Knowing how the search will ultimately end drains much of the suspense and tension out of the movie, leaving dread in its place. As a result, there isn't much to be gained from keeping track of the dense thicket of names and associations that provide Mariane and the authorities with their trail of bread crumbs. What's important about A Mighty Heart isn't the result of their investigation so much as the process itself, and how it speaks to Mariane's fierce commitment to her husband and her values. Jolie is such an expressive actress that there's always a danger she'll overplay the part, but one major misstep aside, she slips into Winterbottom's wide-ranging procedural and asserts herself only when dramatically necessary. She simply exercises Mariane's persistent will, and honors her in the process.