Sunday, June 24, 2007

REVIEW: A Mighty Heart

"Sobering" is so far the best term to describe "A Mighty Heart." Too bad reactions to it run anything but, or so it seems thus far. The film takes an event, the murder by terrorists of Daniel Pearl, that seems BUILT to engender nothing but extreme reactions in any number of directions and attempts to look at it through the extremity-filtering lens of a tragic docudrama. It's a refreshing stylistic choice, even as I'm personally sick to death of docu-drama-shaky-cam business, as well as a storytelling one - a nice surprise given how annoyingly politically one-sided director Michael Winterbottom's earlier "Road to Guantanamo" was.

Give Winterbottom credit for aiming to avoid spectacle and hyperbole, but he ought've known better: The folks who WANT there to be spectacle and hyperbole about this will generate it on their own, usually in absence of actually seeing the movie, regardless of whether or not the film itself gives them a reason to. It comes down to the sad state of the times: For one "side" of the extreme, a film resembling ANYTHING short of a billowing Old Glory and a bombastic intonation that Pearl's ghastly fate should motivate us to "stick it out" in Iraq will immediately be called "a cop-out" at best and "capitulation to terrorism" at worst... while for the other "side" ANYTHING short of a flame-framed still of George W. Bush and a whispy coda calling Pearl's murder "fallout of AmeriKKKan war mongering!!!" won't do at all. Both sides are an embarassment to the very word "debate."

There's probably nothing any review, certainly not mine, can do to prevent the innevitability of this quietly worthy film being swallowed up amid all this nonsense, only to remerge on DVD and then again come the winter and Angelina Jolie's now-innevitable Academy Award nomination. But I'll say anyway, for the record, that "A Mighty Heart" is a fine film that deftly fuses character-centric tragedy with "Dragnet"-style bullet-point police procedural drama as it dually tracks the strained emotional and physical health of Pearl's widow Marianne (Jolie) and the dizzyingly complex web of politics and street-level intrigue being navigated by the American and Pakistani law enforcers assigned to handle the case.

What works best, aside from across-the-board excellent acting, is that the film actually LIVES UP to it's easier-said-than-done commitment to "fairness:" The only thing resembling a 'hard' political stance it takes can be summed up as "Islamofascist terrorism is evil," and if you can disagree with THAT I've got no confidence that we can have any meaningful dialogue. The terrorists et al, when we meet them, are not mustache-twirling caricatures but frighteningly ordinary - they state they're anti-American, anti-Semetic positions matter of factly and the film just lets it hang in the air, like noxious smoke, confident that the audience does not need to be TOLD that these are the evil words of evil men. Dicey details like the extreme-likelihood of corruption in the Pakistani political system, "inside" agitators and the casual way the self-described "Jihadis" mingle with the rest of the cast/population arrive just-the-facts style with no hand-of-god judgement from the director. When a TV journalist comments on the off-putting nature of Marianne's (public) Zen-stoicism about Daniel's kidnapping, the criticism goes essentially unchallenged.

Amazingly, (especially after "Road,") Winterbottom even lets the issue of "proportionate response" when fighting Jihadis arrive onscreen matter-of-fact and sans-outright critique: The story assigns the role of "resident ass-kicker" to a character identified only as "The Captain," (Ifran Khan from "The Namesake") a Pakistani police official tasked with running down and interrogating the increasingly dense network of leads. He's a calm, cool and to-the-point hardcase in the vein of Jack Webb. Does he use some questionable methods to nail his targets? Yup. Is he willing to break out the guns and kick down the doors? You betcha. Does he torture for information? Well... it's hard to say. We see an interrogation that sure LOOKS like it could be torture, but The Captain's role is simply to calmly look his restained subject in the eye and gently/coldly ask the same question until he cracks. Compare this to the loud-whisper/alligator-clips tomfoolery of "24" and ask yourself which one more likely resembles actual policework. The point is, all of this arrives without judgement. It simply lands onscreen and asks to be regarded on those merits, nothing more.

And yes, what you've heard is true: Jolie's "Oscar clip" moment in the 3rd act is fearsome piece of physical acting. It's a set of actions you've seen in a billion movies, (you'll see what I mean) but never done better than here. In fact, this could be the scene that retires "it" from use for a good long time.