Few roles in this year’s crop of great screen performances send the powerful message that Angelina Jolie has put into her portrayal of Mariane Pearl, the Cuban-French journalist whose husband, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, was kidnapped and then murdered by Al Qaeda in Karachi, Pakistan, in February 2002. As an Oscar winner and one of the world’s most sought-after leading women, Jolie has had her pick of many lucrative roles since her breakthrough 1999 performance in James Mangold’s Girl, Interrupted.
In obtaining the lead in A Mighty Heart, which was produced by her partner Brad Pitt’s company Plan B Entertainment, Jolie had to please someone whose perspective diverged considerably from that of a film studio executive. That was Mariane Pearl herself, who agreed that Jolie would be the best choice to tell her story. Jolie has acknowledged that she considered this the toughest role of her career thus far, telling the Los Angeles Times, “It was the one film I’ve done where I’d lost sleep and didn’t think I could do it.” Despite her concerns, Jolie succeeded in bringing to the screen a fantastic sense of this woman’s extraordinary courage and determination in the long months of search and discovery leading up to the tragic news that her husband had been executed.
The performance is a masterpiece of understatement and interiority that blazes forth in Jolie’s unforgettable eyes, blending the best features of contemporary, documentary-style realism with an undeniably classic Hollywood-star presence.
Mariane Pearl has been a friend of Jolie’s since before the film project began. Their children, Adam and Maddox, play together, and the two mothers share an attitude toward global politics that resonates in every frame of this extremely moving work. As an international public intellectual and a citizen of the contemporary world, Mariane Pearl makes an unusual kind of heroine for what is essentially an action-suspense story, albeit without the usual car chases, standoffs, and special effects. A Mighty Heart is a thriller for people who would rather watch a pregnant woman win intense arguments with frightening officials in a foreign country than see another overdeveloped male act as though he is some kind of steroid-induced killing machine.
The fierce dignity Jolie achieves through her uncanny assimilation of Pearl’s idiosyncratic speech patterns adds a touch of the new to an old story-the triumph of love in a time of war. The recent assassination of Benazir Bhutto only adds to the sense that this portrait of a woman who is at home-or at least fully herself-in both the West and the East is something that needs to be seen on both sides of this unfortunate cultural divide.