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‘A Mighty Heart’ is the feel-bad film of the year

The film doesn’t add much to the tragic story that most of us already know

Like most of Michael Winterbottom’s movies, “A Mighty Heart” has a fluid, compulsive quality. This invariably allows him to process difficult contemporary material and give it an urgent present-tense quality.

Whether he’s finding his way along “The Road to Guantanamo” or he’s trying to make sense of the Bosnian war in “Welcome to Sarajevo” or he’s exploring the Afghan-refugee experience in “In This World,” Winterbottom almost always demonstrates that non-fiction trumps fiction for sheer strangeness.

“A Mighty Heart,” the story of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping and murder five years ago, is one of his toughest pictures. Co-produced by Brad Pitt, it’s also likely to be one of the toughest to sell. To put it bluntly, this may be the feel-bad movie of the year.

Why spend a couple of hours telling a story that everyone knows and most people would like to pack away if not forget? Especially if you have so little to add to the narrative, and no apparent insight that allows you to approach it from a fresh angle?

While the movie does a remarkably concise job of presenting the facts about Pearl and his then-pregnant wife, Mariane, who gave birth to their child after his death, their bond must be taken on faith. While Dan Futterman looks like Pearl and subtly suggests his genial personality, and Angelina Jolie brings conviction (and a convincing French-Cuban accent) to the role of the wife, their connection as married journalists is underplayed to the point of invisibility.

Instead of developing their relationship, by suggesting what feelings and thoughts they must have shared (or not), the script gives us mostly Kodak moments: flashbacks to their wedding and other happy times. Instead of pondering whether Pearl flirted with danger and became too trusting of his sources, the script shies away from such confrontations.

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Mariane’s insistence that she won’t be terrorized is admirable, but how many times can we say that the terrorists have won if we’ve let them get to us? Her anguish registers, yet there’s something remote about the way Winterbottom treats it.

There appears to be little to be learned from what happened, at least as the material is presented here. The script fails to explore the religious fanaticism behind Pearl’s brutal beheading in Pakistan in 2002. If anti-Semitism was the prime motivation, more needs to be said about it. Why not deal with the kidnappers and their trial?

Of course, it’s possible to go too far in this direction, by turning the killers into household names or by making them seem more worthy of attention than their victims. “Nine Hours to Rama,” the 1963 movie about Gandhi’s assassin, is perhaps the worst example of this: the emphasis ended up being on a great man’s death rather than his achievements.

Something similar happens in “A Mighty Heart.” Pearl is idealized as an honest reporter, a perfect husband and an abstraction — he never comes to life as a three-dimensional hero. In the end, Winterbottom fails to address what about Pearl made him worthy of the film’s title.