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June 25, 2007

A Mighty Heart

A Mighty Heart is an interesting film; it's a Michael Winterbottom picture by name and appearance, and in many ways it fits right in with his oveure, completing a Middle East-meets-West troika alongside In This World and The Road To Guantanamo. But while those two films defied easy categorization, this one is defined by a slightly more overwhelming factor. It's not so much the presence of Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl, on whose life and book the film is based, that polarizes the film so much as it is the event of the most famously philanthropic movie star lending offering herself as proxy to Ms. Pearl. Indeed, Jolie was attached to the project before Winterbottom was, which puts the entire film into perspective: it's not so much the work of an auteur as it is that of a celebrity doing her best to subjugate herself to her material.

And certainly, Winterbottom was the right commodity to invest in for this particular film. He could be counted on to strip the vermeer from a story that needs none, to revel in the grit and immediacy of a given context (by the time the film was announced last summer, he'd naturally already been shooting undercover in Pakistan for several weeks) and to pull off, under this verite subterfuge, a rather precarious vanishing act.

To a very large extent, he pulls it off. There's a level of disbelief that cannot be suspended in a film like this: we know that Daniel Pearl will not survive, and that the suspenseful pursuit of him will come to naught; likewise, we're familiar with all the baggage accompanying the woman playing his wife. These impediments come with the territory, but both director and actress go a long way towads circumventing them. Jolie, for her part, never completely disappears, but she never seems to be acting either. She's there in the mix, in the moment, with all the other actors (who, but for Will Patton, may as well be the real players as far as Western audiences are concerned), and this is in many ways about as great an accomplishment as one could hope for, given the circumstances.

But then comes the moment when Mariane learns that her husband has been killed. It is this scene that will be excerpted en masse come awards season, precisely because it is a glaring instance of performance with a capital P. I don't doubt that Jolie worked herself up to a real and genuine level of grief, and that those raw and anguished screams come from a sincere and real place, but there's practically a ticker tape of meta data running across the screen as the scene plays out. It's the moment we've been waiting for, so to speak, and the fact that Winterbottom gives it to us - and gives it to us and gives it to us - feels at odds with much of what he's accomplished to that point in the film.

On the other hand, this scene has an interesting counter effect: it breaks the fourth wall, and thereby removes a certain level of self importance from the picture. Winterbottom might as well have caught his camera's reflection in a mirror, because suddenly he's taken us out of the moment, reminded us that this is only a picture, only a performance, and that what we've been caught up in is an entertainment. As Manola Dargis wrote in her review: "...make no mistake, despite its pseudo-documentary grit and the imprimatur of the midcult art-house director Michael Winterbottom, A Mighty Heart is a precision-tooled Hollywood machine." This one big movie star moment proves to be a cog in that machine, but it also provides a genuine moment of something else: honesty. Albeit not the type anyone probably intended.

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Ciao is screening at the Magnolia tonight in Dallas. It's a word-of-mouth-by-way-of-cast-and-crew-cum-test screening, and it'll be the first time it's seen by anyone other than the key creative principals. I'm waiting with baited breath to hear how it goes.

Posted by David Lowery at June 25, 2007 02:42 AM

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