News flash: when you're watching Michael Winterbottom's A Mighty Heart and Angelina Jolie's full-immersion performance, you don't think about Jolie's activism or parenting skills. You don't think about celebrity journalism or the countless outrageous things Jolie has done or said over the years when she didn't have films this strong to back her up.
Instead you're lost in the richly detailed Pakistan that Mariane Pearl (Jolie) and a host of cops and diplomats must unravel in order to find journalist Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman), kidnapped and later murdered in 2002. Winterbottom favors a semi-documentary style, keeping his camera lurking around the corner in Mariane's house as conflicting information slowly trickles in and a dogged Pakistani cop known as "The Captain" (the excellent Irrfan Khan) pursues every lead.
Since we know the ending, the unfolding of A Mighty Heart brings other thoughts to mind. Pakistan seems like a world that even the most thoughtful Westerner could never hope to understand. Even the civil authorities represented by the Captain and his men seem befuddled by the network of jihadists behind which lies the secret of Pearl's disappearance. The U.S. government (represented by Will Patton as a diplomat) offers sympathy but little practical help, and Patton's character seems to be centrally interested in riding along as the Captain raids suspects.
The flashbacks to Daniel and Mariane pre-kidnapping are restrained and inserted at just the right moments. They're as fleeting as memories and bittersweet as anything good cut short. As for the much-discussed wailing when Mariane learns her husband's fate? It's to Jolie and Winterbottom's great credit that the scene (and indeed the entire movie) never devolves into easy sentiment.
We need A Mighty Heart at this time not just for the moving story of a journalist's sacrifice. The complexity of the culture we're fighting (and in the case of Pakistan, "allied with") still isn't understood by enough people. The combination of religion and socioeconomic factors that give rise to Islamic fundamentalism - which the film glances off but doesn't attempt to dumb down - is of course the great problem of our time. To steal a line from The West Wing, what does winning this war look like?