‘A Mighty Heart’: Appointment in Karachi, By Kurt Loder

Angelina Jolie dims down to light up a tragic true story. Also: The woolly horror of 'Black Sheep.'

The most remarkable thing about “A Mighty Heart,” Michael Winterbottom’s new movie about the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl by Islamic terrorists five years ago, isn’t Angelina Jolie’s career-high performance as Pearl’s wife, Mariane. Jolie really is extraordinary, it’s true: She shrugs off all of her encumbering glamour to project this woman’s tough intelligence and stoic endurance with a perfectly formed characterization built on absolute control of expressive tone. She really is superb. But then so are the performances of just about everyone else around her: not only the American, English and Asian actors in the main roles, but also many of the Pakistani non-actors — picked off of city streets for their look or their distinctive presence — who pass memorably through the picture.

What most distinguishes the movie, though, is Winterbottom’s mastery of the material. Consider the obstacles (some of them self-imposed) that he had to overcome. The story derives its emotional import from Pearl’s death; but the grim details of the ordeal he underwent remain mostly unknown, and so must be kept offstage. (It would of course be a very different picture if they weren’t, and weren’t.) This leaves the story to be centered on the separate ordeal undergone by Pearl’s wife, with whom we can only wait in torment for the awful news we know is coming. (The movie is based on Mariane Pearl’s memoir of the events, “A Mighty Heart.”) And in the film, the wife is played by an international celebrity whose very presence might well have unbalanced the whole project. In addition, Winterbottom was determined to shoot the picture on location in such teeming cities as Karachi, Islamabad and Rawalpindi — a guarantee of logistical difficulty. He also went into filming without rehearsals, and he encouraged the actors to improvise freely.

That the director manages to balance all these elements, and bend them to his purpose, is a near-miracle. Thanks in large part to Jolie’s formidable restraint, his movie isn’t the star-turn showcase it might have devolved into. Mariane Pearl is the character through whom we enter into the story, but she doesn’t dominate the picture (she isn’t even onscreen for one considerable stretch midway in); and this allows Winterbottom to focus on what might be the movie’s true subject — the fearsome and never-ending chaos in that maddening land, the Middle East.

The movie is scrupulous about following only the known facts of the story. Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman), the Journal‘s South Asia Bureau Chief, arrives in Karachi on January 22, 2002. He is accompanied by his French wife, Mariane, also a journalist, who is five months pregnant with their first child. Daniel is chasing a lead for a story about Richard Reid, the English Al-Qaeda member who had attempted to detonate a shoe bomb during an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami one month earlier. Pearl wants to track down a militant Pakistani cleric with possible links to Reid, and thinks he has set up a meeting with the man in a Karachi restaurant. Leaving Mariane in the care of his Karachi-based Journal colleague, Asra Nomani (the British actress Archie Panjabi, of “Bend It like Beckham”), Daniel departs for his rendezvous with the cleric on January 23. He never returns.

After Daniel disappears, Winterbottom settles us into Asra’s house, which is quickly overrun by American diplomatic officials, FBI agents and Pakistani intelligence officers. We experience the frantic confusion that follows through Mariane’s eyes, and we soon realize — as the names of possible suspects and their Byzantine politico-terrorist connections start accreting like cobwebs — that there’s no way we’re going to be able to keep all of this straight. (Mariane has to use a wall chart.) Could Masud the Fixer have played a role? Or a shadowy figure named Bashir? Was Sheikh Gilani, the man Daniel was supposedly going to meet, even aware of what was going on? The Pakistanis are all disarmingly polite and soft-spoken — but can any of them be trusted?

At least one can, it turns out — a velvety intel officer known only as “Captain” (played by the magnetic Indian film star Irfan Khan). It is this character who rousts us out of Asra’s house and into the roiling streets of Karachi in search of the terrorist clique behind Daniel’s abduction. With steely determination (of a sort not likely to amuse Geneva Convention purists), he hacks his way through the ideological clutter of post-9/11 Pakistani political intrigue, zeroing in ever more closely on the kidnappers. Eventually, we learn (or re-learn) what happened: Daniel was abducted by an obscure Islamist group with whose inevitable demands and grievances he had no obvious connection, apart from the original sin of being Jewish.

Days drag on painfully. We wait and pace with Mariane, and marvel at the composure she derives from her Buddhist faith. We see her tape a video plea for her husband’s life, and testily confront a Pakistani minister who dismisses the whole situation as a plot by Indian intelligence to embarrass his country. Then comes the awful news: Daniel has been murdered and beheaded. On February 21, the killers release a video documenting his death. They even have a title for it: “The Slaughter of the Spy-Journalist, the Jew Daniel Pearl.” In May, his body is found outside of Karachi, cut into 10 pieces.

The infamous death video isn’t depicted, of course. (There’s a very brief scene in which some of his Journal associates view it, but our only indication of what’s on it is the horror we read in their stricken faces.) Mariane naturally refuses to see it, and at this point Jolie’s ability to seamlessly mingle feelings of outrage, despair and devastation is really striking. Apart from one awkwardly showy breakdown scene, she keeps her character’s inner turmoil largely reined in, and intensely focused. To be honest, if we had to spend every minute of the movie with her and her dusky makeup and prosthetic belly, she might become drab company. But Winterbottom cuts away, and keeps things moving. He builds bustling suspense into the all-out hunt for the kidnappers, and allows other actors to provide welcome diversions along the way. Will Patton plays an American security official who can barely suppress his envy of the rough justice his Pakistani counterparts are allowed to dish out to suspects; and Aly Khan — another powerfully charismatic Indian star — invests a terrorist kingpin named Sheik Omar with a brooding, almost romantic conviction that’s darkly unsettling.

Dan Futterman lends the movie most of its simple, unstudied human warmth. He plays Danny Pearl as a smart, dedicated young professional who cares not just about the quality of his reporting, but about the people and events he’s reporting on, as well. But he’s not a careerist automaton — he values nothing more highly than Mariane (“You make me happy every time you smile,” he tells her), and the baby who’ll soon be joining them. And Jolie illuminates her own devotion — and the depths of her onrushing loss — in a short scene of wordless eloquence. From the beginning of their nightmare she has repeatedly called Daniel’s cell phone; there’s never an answer, but she keeps trying. Finally, as it becomes clear she may never hear his voice again, she simply taps out a text message — “I love you” — and with a click sends it off into the uncaring ether.

(“A Mighty Heart” is a Paramount Pictures release. Paramount and MTV are both subsidiaries of Viacom.)

“Black Sheep”: Violence of the Lambs

You want to love a horror flick about bloodthirsty, rampaging mutant sheep; you really do. But this New Zealand film, by first-time writer and director Jonathan King, is a little too mild to really roll with its wonderfully silly premise. King clearly loves the irony of staging quadruped carnage in his gorgeous native locations (the plump green hills and long, leafy vistas in and around Wellington), but the landscape nevertheless subverts all ominous intent. Then too, sheep simply aren’t all that inherently menacing, no matter how shape-shifty the movie attempts to make them. “Black Sheep” is sort of like “The Birds” without the eerie motivational mystery, or throwaway ’50s trash like “The Killer Shrews” without the exhilarating idiocy.

It’s a genial, unpretentious picture, though, and the story does take a few funny turns. Henry Oldfield (Nathan Meister) has returned to his family’s vast sheep farm to sell his unwanted share of the place to his snotty elder brother, Angus (Peter Feeney). He discovers that Angus has been operating a sinister genetic-engineering lab on the farm and is attempting to create a mutant breed of sheep with the infusion of human DNA. A pair of animal-rights activists — a scraggly doofus named Grant (Oliver Driver) and an aura-reading neo-hippie who calls herself Experience (Danielle Mason) — have also gotten wind of Angus’ activities, and have snuck onto the property to screw things up for him. But when Grant spills a lab container filled with the results of a sheep-fetus experiment gone terribly wrong, and then gets bitten by the still-lively contents (a creature not unlike the early-stage star of “Alien”), an epidemic erupts.

It’s funny to see a thundering herd of crazed sheep pouring down a hillside to attack a garden party, ripping off arms, legs and faces with woolly abandon. And the granola-damaged Experience has a couple of cute moments (spotting a chewed-up corpse in a corner, she says, “The feng shui in this room is terrible”), although after a while her crunchy clichés start to seem a little too nudgingly satirical. The picture is a vibrant advertisement for the scenic glories of New Zealand (it was shot by Richard Bluck, who did second-unit work on the “Lord of the Rings” films), but it’s not really scary — and it’s not that funny. I was happy to learn the best way to fend off a towering man-sheep mutant, though. You throw mint sauce at him and watch him hiss and howl.

Check out everything we’ve got on “A Mighty Heart” and “Black Sheep”.

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