Thursday, September 20, 2007

Human tragedy and inhuman acts

Can bimbos become Bernhardts? A gasp of consternation went out from cinemagoers on first learning that the lead role in A Mighty Heart, the screen adaptation of Mariane Pearl’s memoir of her husband Daniel’s kidnapping and killing, would be played by Angelina Jolie. Lara Croft in a reality-based political tragedy? Tinseltown’s top siren, the much-buzzed diva with the hornet-stung lips, as the widow of a beheading that set the benchmark for barbarity in an early chapter of present-day jihad?

Rest reassured. That Jolie can act is proved by this moving and modulated performance, as the woman whose husband became a casualty on the motoring map towards Middle East conflict resolution. Jolie’s French accent is a convincing start; the curly black wig and brown contact lenses help; the immersion in the role’s emotions is the clincher, an empathy possibly helped by the actress’s own friendship, preceding the film, with Mariane Pearl.

Michael Winterbottom (Welcome to Sarajevo, The Road to Guantanamo) is a savvy guide through the political jungle. Here he makes a virtue of information overload. Too many facts, not too few, feed this drama and its frustrations. The rumour mill, the real news, the disinformation of officials: Mariane tries to connect the dots on the chaotic wall chart in her home, but their prolixity keeps defeating her.

What is knowledge anyway? the film asks. Is it the “knowledge” of one character here, a Zionist-conspiracy theorist, that 4,000 Jews who normally worked in the Twin Towers did not turn up there on September 11? Is it the facts or half-facts gouged from men under torture (an instrument of persuasion used here by both sides)? Is it the news stories filed every day under restraints, constraints or, just as bad, the propagandist colouring of a writer and his newspaper?

Winterbottom and scenarist John Orloff resist an enactment of Daniel Pearl’s own ordeal. That would be their colouring-in of history. Instead the Wall Street Journal reporter, played by Dan Futterman, is seen mostly in flashbacks. These become poignant memory-retrievals for Mariane as she learns, scene by scene, to convert hope to realistic despair.

Could the story have been given a bigger acoustic? Should it have dared to give offence to westerners by letting the terrorists articulate, at greater length, their cause? (The Road to Guantanamo allowed Islam its say.) Probably not. The world is still too young to treat Pearl’s death as anything but the inhuman act that to feeling human beings it was. The film opts to depict a single but reverberant tragedy and does so with force, skill and a memorable central performance.

-Nigel Andrews, FT

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