With A Mighty Heart, he takes on contemporary politics, unflinchingly tackling the subject of the world versus terrorism, with the story of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped while on assignment in Pakistan in 2002 and brutally slaughtered by his captors.
When the events took place, certain reprehensible American news outlets actually showed his murder. Though the film leads inexorably to that horrifying act, Winterbottom sagely does not show it; instead he keeps his cameras on the terrified faces of the Pakistani police, to whom the videotapes were first sent by the jihadist perpetrators.
This dramatic retelling of the sorry episode begins with a quick history lesson of the times, narrated off-camera by Pearl's wife Mariane (Angelina Jolie), then jumps back to a month earlier when Daniel and a very pregnant Mariane were getting ready to head home after a long assignment in the Middle East. But friendly, laid-back, professional Daniel (Dan Futterman) -- let's call him Danny -- needed just one more interview. He wanted to follow up a lead for a talk with the powerful Sheikh Gilani, who was supposed to have some information about shoe bomber Richard Reid.
He knew that he had to be careful, that he should only meet people in public places, that most locals believed all American journalists were CIA agents. One of the last times we see Danny is in a shot of him getting in a cab. The picture of him that keeps going through the mind of the waiting, worrying Mariane when he doesn't return that night for dinner is that same haunting image.
There are people out in the world who will say they won't go to see this film because of the subject matter. There are others who accuse it of being a hate-mongering piece of anti-Arab propaganda. It's OK to cut some slack for the former; it is, indeed, a troubling topic. But the latter are an ignorant bunch, none of whom have seen the film. More than a story about what happened to Danny Pearl, this is about the helpless situation his wife found herself in, and about the tireless efforts of Arab, American, and other law enforcement officials to find him. This film will not make anyone hate Arabs. What it will do, however, is make viewers despise terrorists and everything they stand for.
Although most of A Mighty Heart centers on detailed police work, Winterbottom nicely balances that with flashbacks ranging from the reporter's initial meetings to set up his interview to scenes of happier times with him and Mariane.
The film uses various jumping-off points to keep an uncomfortable air of reality, constantly reminding us that we're getting looks at an alien place. The streets are teeming with people and cars and trucks and buses, and in due time the Pearl apartment is overcrowded with cops and FBI assorted counter terrorist folks, who are soon searching in those streets.
The faceless captors make demands about the treatment of American-held prisoners in Cuba. Colin Powell is seen on television news reports talking about the predicament. Winterbottom leaves in a few flubbed lines spoken during passionate, sometimes angry speeches, which add even more to the film's environment of reality.
Jolie certainly gives the performance of her career, extremely effective whether she's silent, contemplatively staring at the camera, or releasing her pent-up emotions in outbursts of rage. Also of note are the acting chops of Will Patton as FBI man Randall Bennett, the local police captain (Irfan Khan), Danny's boss (Denis O'Hare), and the smiling, soft-spoken Futterman as Danny.
Fast -- at times frantic -- editing creates a palpable tension. But despite all the quick cutting, political intrigue and constant talking, this remains a brooding sort of film, since we all know how it's going to end.
Yet there's more to the story than what happened to Danny Pearl. Everything here leads up to both death and birth. Emotions will be running rampant among viewers at the conclusion, and there's a good chance that many of them will leave the theater with at least a slight feeling of hope.