American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"A Mighty Heart" begins with shots of the teeming streets of Karachi, Pakistan, a city with a population that seems jammed in, shoulder to shoulder. Terrorists will emerge from this sea of humanity, kidnap the American journalist Daniel Pearl and disappear. The film is about the desperate search for Pearl (Dan Futterman) before the release of the appalling video showing him being beheaded. It is told largely through the eyes of and based on a memoir by his widow, Mariane.
We know how the story is going to end. The real drama is played out with the natures of the people looking for him. They include his pregnant wife, a French radio journalist who conceals her grief behind a cool and calculating facade to help her husband's chances; their friend (Archie Panjabi), whose apartment becomes a nerve center; a Pakistan security official (Irrfan Khan) whose uncertain position reflects the way his country accepts American money and harbors terrorists; an American agent (Will Patton) whose skills are better adapted to American cities, and one of Pearl's bosses at the Wall Street Journal (Denis O'Hare), who offers encouragement without much reason.
Standing at the center of the story is Mariane Pearl, played by Angelina Jolie in a performance that is both physically and emotionally convincing. A few obvious makeup changes make her resemble the woman we saw so often on TV (curly hair, darker skin, the swelling belly), but Jolie's performance depends above all on inner conviction; she reminds us, as we saw in some of her earlier films like "Girl, Interrupted" (1999), that she is a skilled actress and not merely (however entertainingly) a Tomb Raider.
The movie, directed by the versatile British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom ("24 Hour Party People," "The Road to Guantanamo"), is notable for what it leaves out. Although we do meet the possible suspect Omar (Aly Khan), there are not any detailed scenes of Pearl with his kidnappers, no portrayals of their personalities or motivations, and we do not see the beheading and its video. That last is not just because of Winterbottom's tact and taste, but because (I think) he wants to portray the way Pearl has almost disappeared into another dimension. His kidnappers have transported him outside the zone of human values and common sense. We reflect that the majority of Muslims do not approve of the behavior of Islamic terrorists, just as the majority of Americans disapprove of the war in Iraq.