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At its end, a preview screening of A Mighty Heart in Los Angeles was met by a small group of film critics with the only appropriate response - stunned silence.
The reaction was all the more remarkable since everyone already knew the ultimate outcome, the execution-style murder of American Jewish reporter Daniel Pearl by Islamic extremists five years ago in Karachi.
Yet the film's tension ratchets up relentlessly as a combined Pakistani-American team tries to track down clue after misleading clue for 28 days to identify Pearl's kidnappers and save his life.
At the center of the chaotic rescue attempts is Pearl's visibly pregnant Dutch-Cuban-Jewish wife Mariane, a strong, smart and self-possessed woman and a journalist herself, portrayed by Angelina Jolie.
In some of the more restrained recent media coverage during her long-running romance with partner Brad Pitt, the 32-year old Jolie has been described as "the hottest film actress on the planet" and "the most beautiful woman in the world."
It would have been easy, but fatal, to turn A Mighty Heart into a star vehicle for Jolie, portraying an expectant mother on an emotional roller coaster in an exotic setting, but British director Michael Winterbottom and Jolie herself have eluded the trap.
Somewhat disguised by a prosthetic belly, curly wig and nondescript clothes, Jolie, who earlier earned her acting credentials with her Oscar-winning performance in Girl, Interrupted, submerges herself into the role of Mariane.
In a necessarily smaller part as Daniel Pearl, screenwriter and actor Dan Futterman, appearing mainly in flashbacks, not only bears a pronounced physical resemblance to the then 38-year old reporter, but also conveys his easy charm and wit.
Director Winterbottom (The Road to Guantanamo) proves again his mastery of the cinema v rit style, deftly jump-cutting from domestic scenes to chaotic street pursuits to actual news footage, and relieving the tension with episodes from the Pearls' courtship and Buddhist-Jewish wedding.
The recurring centerpiece of the movie is a large, erasable chart, in which the oddly mixed team from the Pakistani police, FBI and American consulate tries to connect the dots between an ever-changing cast of suspects and informers. Eventually, the board resembles a combination of D-Day invasion plans with a particularly intricate offensive play diagramed by a football coach on steroids.
A Mighty Heart is based closely on the book of the same title by Mariane Pearl (with Sarah Crichton), and unfolds from her perspective. We see and learn little of the agonies and actions of Daniel's parents, Judea and Ruth Pearl, holed up in their Encino home and besieged by reporters outside.
The parents and Danny's two sisters are seen mainly in brief phone calls to Mariane, with the Israel-born father saddled with an unidentifiable and exaggerated accent.
The elder Pearls do not seem upset by the subordinate role. "Our main hope is that the film will encourage viewers to learn more about Danny's life and work," said Judea Pearl. To that end, the family has established the Daniel Pearl Foundation (http://danielpearl.org) to promote understanding among different cultures and religions.
Featured characters in the film include the lead Pakistani investigator (Irrfan Khan), Asra Nomani (Archie Panjabi), Mariane's closest female friend, an American security officer (Will Patton), and Wall Street Journal editor John Bussey (Denis O'Hare). The screenplay is by John Orloff (Band of Brothers) and Brad Pitt is a co-producer of the Paramount Vantage release.
Parts of the book have been deleted from the 108-minute long film, including friend Asra's tortured love affair, and some aspects of the Wall Street Journal handling of the case.
While the daily's editors went all out to protect Pearl during his captivity (such as persuading the media not to divulge that he was a Jew), the film omits Mariane's lengthy charge that the Journal failed to heed her husband's earlier pleas to take step to protect journalists in dangerous parts of the world.
And though Winterbottom told The Jerusalem Post that he does not believe Pearl was killed because he was a Jew, but rather for being in the wrong place at the wrong time ("After all, like a good journalist, he initiated the contacts that led to his kidnapping"), he does not deemphasize Pearl's Jewishness in the film, and if anything, emphasizes it more than the book.
The movie performs a signal service to the battered reputation of journalists, long portrayed on screen as either swaggering devil-may-care boozers or unscrupulous hustlers. By contrast, Daniel Pearl, in life as on screen, emerges as a deeply conscientious, highly perceptive and hard-digging reporter.
He is also shown as a romantic, sensitive suitor and husband, which may not be characteristic of all newsmen.
Although four men were quickly convicted in a Pakistani court shortly after the January 2002 kidnap-murder, their cases are still on appeal, and new alleged accomplices continue to keep the Pearl case in the headlines.
In early June, Pakistani police arrested two earlier suspects who, police say, are linked to Pearl's kidnapping and death.
In March, the Pentagon released a partial transcript of an interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged al-Qaeda mastermind behind the 9/11 attack, and now held by the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay.
According to the transcript, Mohammed proudly proclaimed that he had personally beheaded Pearl, boasting, "I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl."
'A Mighty Heart' is scheduled to open in Israel on September 6.
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