When “The Road To Guantanamo” came out a year ago, a lot of people were ready to jump all over director Michael Winterbottom. His film, which portrayed three British men of Pakistani origin who were picked up and incarcerated at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo, Cuba, was seen by some as one-sided “America-bashing.”

One suspects, however, that Winterbottom simply felt some sympathy for the unspoken victims of this never-ending “war on terror.” Such is the climate of today, though, that expressing sympathy that’s not first and foremost for Americans, means that you will be regarded as ideologically suspect. And yet the right of a filmmaker to tell a story, free of the pressure to include the bland and often disingenuous all-around “objectivity” of TV newscasts, should be paramount. One story need not be representative of all stories, a fact often lost on politically correct critics both left and right.

One imagines some of these people are eating crow upon the release of Winterbottom’s new film, “A Mighty Heart.” This one looks again at the victims in the “war on terror,” but this time it’s a Western victim, journalist Daniel Pearl of The Wall Street Journal, who was kidnapped and beheaded by Islamic fanatics in Pakistan in 2002. His wife, Mariane, struggled fiercely to find and free him during this captivity, and “A Mighty Heart” is mostly her story.

A Mighty Heart
Director Michael Winterbottom
Run Time 108 minutes
Language English
Opens Opens Nov. 23, 2007

Mariane is played by Angelina Jolie, and many see this as her shot at another Oscar, her first serious role in ages. (Does “Alexander” count? I thought not.) In truth, this is Jolie’s best work since “Girl, Interrupted,” way back in 1999. Here she portrays a woman who tries her best to keep it together, when all around her is falling apart.

The film starts in Karachi, Pakistan, where the Pearls have been reporting since Sept. 12, 2001. Both are journalists; he for an American newspaper, she for French public radio. They are planning on leaving Pakistan when Daniel (played by Dan Futterman) goes off to interview an elusive cleric connected to fundamentalist jihadists. When Daniel fails to return home that evening, Mariane immediately starts to worry. By the next day, when her home has been invaded by the Pakistani police and intelligence services, and along with some concerned journalists and U.S. Embassy officials, Mariane starts to coordinate an effort to find and free her husband.

Since this story was heavily featured in the media, most viewers will be familiar with its contours. As such, there’s not a lot of suspense, and Winterbottom has to look elsewhere for his story. There’s a lot of interest in the particulars, like the xenophobic way all foreigners in Pakistan seem to be considered spies for India (or the Mossad), or the heavy-handed way Pakistani intelligence services followed the trail to Pearl’s kidnappers.

Most of all, it’s the emotional journey that Mariane went through during the weeks her husband was held hostage. Trying to cope in a foreign land while heavily pregnant and working her way through a maze of government agendas, Mariane comes off as confident, gutsy, and fiercely determined to win back Daniel; her emotional breakdowns come only when nobody’s looking. It’s the kind of “strong female” role that Hollywood actresses are always on the lookout for, but to Jolie’s credit, she never overplays it (no doubt helped by Winterbottom’s naturalistic sense of filmmaking), keeping the big emotions for one crushingly sad scene.

Winterbottom, like the directors of so many post-9/11 films, refrains from taking sides politically, letting the events he portrays speak for themselves. Pearl is kidnapped by barbarous men who decide to kill him because he is American and Jewish, that much is horribly clear. But we also hear how Pearl’s paper, The Wall Street Journal (a conservative mouthpiece), cooperated with the CIA by turning over a computer they had with information pertaining to “shoe-bomber” Richard Reid, and then stupidly trumpeted their patriotism by announcing the fact, something that no doubt endangered their employees.

Most telling is when Pearl’s kidnappers demand better conditions for prisoners in Guantanamo Bay in exchange for the release of Pearl. We see then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell saying, “The demands the kidnappers made are not demands we could meet. The prisoners at Guantanamo are being treated humanely.” Make of that double-speak what you will, but it sure ties in with Winterbottom’s last film.

Along with “In This World” (2003), a documentary on illegal immigration routes from Afghanistan to Europe, Winterbottom has now made a name for himself as an intelligent and perceptive observer of the collision points between the Muslim world and the West in our turbulent times.

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