Like old-time Hollywood movie stars, Angelina Jolie has always seemed larger than life. Not one to disappear into a role, she makes the character fit her fiercely glamorous persona. "A Mighty Heart" changes all that. Playing Mariane Pearl, the wife of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped and murdered by Islamic militants in Karachi, Pakistan, in 2002, Jolie does a miraculous vanishing act, down to her complex French accent, inflected with the Cuban and Dutch of her parents. Smart, prickly, courageous, her terror often covered over with steely flashes of anger, Pearl—as anyone who saw her on TV after her loss—refused the public role of victim that the touchy-feely American media tried to impose on her. Jolie honors her fortitude with a performance of meticulous honesty. Every flicker of Mariane's conflicting emotions passes like quicksilver over Jolie's face, but nothing is milked for pathos.
This is in keeping with the tone of director Michael Winterbottom's taut, almost documentary approach to the search for Danny Pearl (Dan Futterman), who vanished in Karachi while pursuing a lead on a story about the shoe bomber Richard Reid. Following closely Pearl's memoir, John Orloff's screenplay unfolds like a police procedural. We are as much in the dark as Mariane as the investigation frantically proceeds, headed by the Pakistani counterterrorism expert known as Captain (Irrfan Khan, of "The Namesake").
Winterbottom ("In This World," "Welcome to Sarajevo"), who favors a handheld, vérité style of camerawork, has always been expert at gritty atmospherics. Shooting in Karachi, often in the very locations where the tragedy unfolded, he refuses to tart up an already riveting tale with Hollywood melodramatics. If this sometimes means that we are as confused about what is going on as the participants, so be it. Though we know the outcome, we still hang on every false lead, hoping against hope, like Mariane, that the story will have a different outcome. (Mercifully, the murder itself is not shown.)
Winterbottom's aversion to sentimentality doesn't mean you won't be moved by "A Mighty Heart." Jolie's piercing cry of grief when she gets the news of Danny's death cuts right into your heart. But like many of Winterbottom's movies, it falls a step short of its full potential. Its tact is both its strength and its weakness. The climax feels rushed: it's the rare movie these days that feels too short. The intriguing supporting players—Mariane's friend and fellow journalist Asra (Archie Panjabi), whose house becomes headquarters for the search; the American security agent Randall Bennett (Will Patton), who seems perversely excited by the danger; the Journal editor (Denis O'Hare), who flies to Mariane's side, and the dedicated Captain, whose relationship to Mariane is more fleshed out in the book—are all characters we'd like to know more intimately. Winterbottom gets the feel of reality pitch-perfect, but his British reticence prevents him from making the risky leap from a documentary surface into a deeper kind of art.