Michael Winterbottom is attracted to war zones. His 1996 film Welcome to Sarajevo kept shielding a thin flame of redemption amid the howling chaos of the Balkans, and since the "war on terror" bent the landscape into more fluid and unpredictable shapes, he has focused upon the plight of asylum-seekers (In This World) and of political scapegoats (The Road to Guantanamo).
His jittery, on-the-hoof shooting style is a good match for these investigations, thrusting his audience right inside the volatile atmosphere in which the post-September 11 world operates.
That approach, straddling the line between documentary and drama, is now brought to bear on another highly emotive real-life story. A Mighty Heart recounts the tragedy of Daniel Pearl, a writer on The Wall Street Journal who in January 2002 was kidnapped while pursuing a story in Karachi and later murdered. His widow, Mariane, wrote a memoir of this horrific loss, which Winterbottom and his writer, John Orloff, have used as their main source. I wonder how many people groaned, though, on hearing that the part of Mariane would be played by Angelina Jolie, an actress better known for roles that require her to leap, pout and fire automatic weapons, usually at the same time.
Any such misgivings are soon quashed by Jolie's disciplined and understated performance. Wearing her hair in Medusa curls that slightly recall her appearance as Colin Farrell's mum in Alexander, Jolie is required to do more in the way of reacting than acting once the news of Daniel's kidnapping comes down the wire. Six months pregnant at the time, Mariane does a very good job of keeping it together in circumstances that could hardly be more nightmarish. She knows that her husband, as a Jew, has made himself vulnerable just by associating with militant Islamists (he's pursuing a story about the shoe-bomber Richard Reid); when she learns that Daniel's kidnappers have accused him of being an agent of the CIA, and then of Mossad, she realises that he is now in mortal danger.
The odd thing about A Mighty Heart is that, while Mariane is at the centre, Winterbottom seems equally, if not more, interested in the bustle happening around her. In the compound where she lives, more or less marooned, a team of colleagues and professionals keep a tense vigil; this includes her old friend Asra (Archie Panjabi), an American diplomatic agent (Will Patton), two fellow staffers from The Wall Street Journal, sundry FBI agents and an officer of the Pakistani CID (Irrfan Khan).
The investigation, which involves tracking phone calls and collaring suspects on the street, takes Winterbottom into the teeming byways of Karachi, a city that appears to be coping with at least double the number of people and cars than it could possibly accommodate. An exchange of gunfire along the way reminds us that it's not much safer than Baghdad.
One senses that Winterbottom enjoys this restless, ad hoc filming most of all, though what it's all building to is never quite clear. The problem is not that Daniel Pearl's terrible fate is already known to us; we knew the fate of United 93, too, but Paul Greengrass still turned it into a magnificent thriller. The refusal to imagine what Pearl endured prior to his execution unfortunately deprives the film of half of its dramatic potential. We're later told that he twice tried to escape his captors, but nothing of this is enacted on screen. We don't even see Pearl's abduction – he simply doesn't return home.
Instead, the film seems content to reproduce the days and weeks of anxiety as Mariane waits for news, and the increasingly frantic efforts of the authorities to track down the kidnappers. How close they came, and how they might have succeeded, aren't considered. In other words, we have a story, but we haven't got a plot.
The private howl of anguish that Mariane lets rip on first learning that her husband is dead is artfully contrasted with her serene response to the media's questioning some time later. Asked if she had a "message" for the kidnappers, she replies, with almost saintly forbearance, that during the period of Daniel's kidnapping 10 other people were killed by terrorists, all of them Pakistani – but they didn't make the headlines. She behaves with a tremendous, dignified calm, though this is revealed almost as an afterthought; nothing in her portrayal up to that point had suggested that she might have such reserves of courage. The result is a curiously detached film, in which two stories of hideous suffering offer themselves yet only one is told, and that in an oblique and rather unsatisfactory way.
At first I wondered if Jolie's star cachet had been the reason why Dan Futterman, as Daniel Pearl, gets so little screen time. But that theory would only work if she dominated the picture. While she nails every scene that she's in, Jolie is not given much to do until the last quarter of the movie; "I am not terrorised," she tells her friends at her farewell dinner, and you believe her without quite knowing how she has come by this moral toughness. Towards the end there's a flashback to the day of the Pearls' wedding in France, but even this feels too little, too late. There's understated, and then there's under-dramatised. A Mighty Heart unfortunately belongs in the latter category.