A Mighty Heart

Starring Angelina Jolie. Rated PG. Opens Friday, June 22, at the Fifth Avenue Cinemas

In 2002, 38-year-old Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal's South Asia bureau chief, was investigating the steps of "shoe bomber" Richard Reid in Pakistan. On his way to a clandestine meeting with a spiritual leader, he was kidnapped. Despite the intervention of world leaders, the kidnappers later beheaded Pearl.

Director Michael Winterbottom's rendering of the story, A Mighty Heart, leaves us as sickened as five years ago, when we learned how a loving husband and father-to-be can be regarded as a high-value hostage. Was it because Pearl let slip he was Jewish? Was it because he was thought to be a CIA operative? The film raises questions it cannot answer. In presenting us with this puzzle again half a decade on, it's frustrating.

Now imagine the agony of Pearl's bereft wife, Mariane, tangled in the mystery. The French public-radio reporter, played here by Angelina Jolie, was five months pregnant with their first child at the time. Unfortunately, the confusion of a teeming, steaming, noisy Karachi makes Mariane's hunt for Pearl (Dan Futterman, seen briefly) seem like looking for a microorganism in a haystack. Attempts at investigating leads, tracing e-mails, canvassing Karachiites, and soliciting the help of corrupt police heighten the urgency and anguish of the Pearls' situation. Anonymous men pound up darkened stairwells. Characters speak rapid-fire Urdu. Car headlights weave in and out of nighttime traffic jams. The ISI, Mossad, the Indian Intelligence Agency, and the National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty are routinely cited. It's fascinating to watch. "Get me out of here" is, nevertheless, the (intended) overwhelming sentiment.

The moviegoing experience is an unpleasantly voyeuristic one. How can we enjoy our frozen yogurt when Mariane's unborn baby won't ever know his father? Despite an adorable corkscrew forelock and her lips' tendency to out-act her, Jolie respects the gravity of the material. She's a remarkable wailer. More poignant are quieter scenes wherein Mariane, having survived the day's emotional chaos, faces night's scarier monster: solitude. Watching her lie in bed texting her missing husband, I thought the lump in my throat could have doubled as a paperweight.

A Mighty Heart is well-meaning and allows Jolie to again prove she deserves an Incredibly Feeling Individual award. The film also credibly distills the many news reports about Pearl's fate into a single, far more intimate, accounting. However, the proceedings feel less like a loving memorial than they do Hollywood-endorsed propaganda against "those people" who committed the atrocity and/or hindered a more positive resolution. Depressing and utterly void of hope, A Mighty Heart is terrific "feel bad" summer fare for the determinedly pessimistic.

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