I have the greatest sympathy for director Michael Winterbottom, who has made a very dull movie out of an exceptionally shocking event. A Mighty Heart
recounts the last days of Daniel Pearl, the journalist beheaded by Pakistani jihadists in 2002, from the perspective of his wife, Mariane, a French reporter played here by Angelina Jolie. It’s a grueling slog of a picture—and somehow forgettable as well, like a long hike through dreary terrain.
But this is not because Winterbottom made too many safe choices. He made the only choices. He couldn’t turn the story into an exercise in Islam-bashing, and he couldn’t use Pearl’s death as an opportunity to castigate Bush-era foreign policy; the slightest hint of either agenda would only compound the desecration. Above all, he couldn’t use one iota of footage from the ghastly video Pearl’s murderers made of his slaughter. Instead, Winterbottom made an inoffensive tribute to a good, unlucky man. I dozed through a lot of it.
Every element of A Mighty Heart
is a mere precursor to the moment when a colleague says, “I’m sorry, Mariane…
Daniel didn’t make it,” and Jolie begins to wail. It’s an awful sound: half animal despair, half Oscar bid. And it’s really Jolie’s only notable contribution to the project.
Each generation gets the war movies it thinks it deserves. In the proud afterglow of World War II, the archetype was Audie Murphy re-enacting his own heroism in To Hell and Back
. Vietnam replaced jingoism with self-loathing, as well as a new intimacy with the suffering of soldiers; the boys went to hell and didn’t come back. Until now, it seemed too early to declare what kind of movies the war on terror (such as it is) would prompt. But A Mighty Heart
, while otherwise unremarkable, marks a definite trend: It confirms the tendencies already displayed in movies as diverse as United 93, World Trade Center, Syriana
and Day Night Day Night
. All five projects, no matter their political convictions or production size, have shared a reliance on hand-held cameras and street-level turmoil—they use a washed-out realism to create identification and tension. The effect on audiences is uniform: We’re just waiting, agonizingly, for hell to come to us. The resultant feeling, after a few doses, is an intensification of terrorism’s noxious blend: anxiety and torpor.
“The age of terror, I suspect, will also be remembered as the age of boredom,” Martin Amis wrote in a 2006 essay. This is certainly true at the movies, where we wait, wearied, for the next re-created atrocity. We won’t have to wait very long: The next Daniel Pearl film is in production for 2008.