Friday, October 30, 2009

A Mighty Heart

Oscar bait. A term used for films that are clearly gunning for a golden statuette. While it's difficult to be truly mean about it, A Mighty Heart is Oscar bait. We've got a film concerning major real life issues with a true story - the kidnapping and murder of journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, which naturally feeds into the major problems in the middle east. We have a major Hollywood star - Angelina Jolie - dressing down and trying to fade into a role. The bait wasn't taken - either by audiences or academy voters - and I can kind of see why.

This is not to downplay the importance of the story by any means. Mariane Pearl's story about losing her husband is one that is important to hear, especially considering the state of the world in which it takes place. It's something that should be shared, and should be heard, so we can appreciate the dangers of simply cataloging what is happening in the middle east. It's important to understand what is going on in these places.

It's also not to say that the film is badly directed either. Michael Winterbottom is one of my favorites, and this just confirms it. He creates some good tension - even if the end is in sight - and he never makes the characters into unrealistic "heroes", just people doing their jobs to the best of their abilities. There are a couple of times where it seems it should be obvious that Pearl was going into a trap, but they are countered by some fantastic flashback sequences, including a heartbreaking montage of a trip the Pearls' went on mixed in with a take down.

The acting is fine as well. Yeah, Jolie does get a moment late in the film which quite literally screams for an award, but otherwise she gets the delicate balance between strength and fragility necessary for the role. The performances all around are solid and they give the characters a bit of a grounding in reality.

Speaking of that grounding, the script is often fine as well. There are some very chunky moments early on, where it lays out the back story and the situation in a "middle east for grade-schoolers" manner, but it eventually subsides and the meat of the story is still solid. Once it gets away from trying to explain the situation, it gathers steam and does create well rounded characters. Little snippets of incidental conversation slip in, and that's strangely important, as it just keeps everyone human.

So...what's the problem? It eventually hit me late in the process, and it's quite simple. The story would have been a lot better in a documentary. We know how it ends, and while the developments are interesting, the in-the-moment dramatization tries to make us forget quite how it's going to end. The incident is important enough that I think the retrospective approach of a documentary, perhaps with dramatized scenes, would help the structure and tone of the film immensely. That, and I find myself wondering what many of the major players are thinking in any given moment.

However, documentaries never get the profile of a feature starring Ms. Jolie, so it would have never happened. Increasing the profile is a noble goal, and overall I can understand their motivations. If there's a story that needs to be told, it's a good idea to make that story get out to as many as possible. Still, it's not like it made boffo box office anyway, so maybe, in hindsight, doing it as a documentary would have been a better idea. But as I said, it's hard to be mean to it, because its (mighty) heart is in the right place.

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