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MOVIE REVIEW

The waiting

Playing the wife of a kidnapped journalist, an intense Jolie anchors 'A Mighty Heart'

Two of the most crucial characters in "A Mighty Heart " don't even get a credit. One is a city, the other is an unborn child, and between them they represent what's frustrating about the film -- why all its good intentions and visceral emotions come curiously to naught. "A Mighty Heart" is a movie about knowing, understanding, and commemorating. Both city and child remain unknowable to us, though, and so do much darker matters.

This is the Daniel Pearl story, for those of you coming in late. Adapted from Mariane Pearl's 2003 book "A Mighty Heart: The Brave Life and Death of My Husband, Danny Pearl, " the new film re-creates the events that followed the Wall Street Journal reporter's kidnapping in Karachi, Pakistan, on Jan. 23 , 2002 , culminating in the Feb. 21 delivery of the videotape of his murder.

As in the book, we're not privy to Pearl's experiences. What happened to him in captivity, even the identity and specific politics of his kidnappers remain murky. He was simply an American, a reporter, and a Jew: all capital sins to radical fundamentalists who assumed their victim was a CIA operative in the bargain.

Rather, "A Mighty Heart" remains with the pregnant Mariane (Angelina Jolie ) as she waits stoically, refusing to give in to terror while an army of investigators desperately try to find Daniel in the haystack of Karachi. He had gone to meet a source who promised information about Richard Reid , the shoe bomber, but it slowly becomes apparent that the source was bait, and that Pearl had been targeted and stalked over the course of weeks. He has been chosen as an example, and his rescuers need to find him before the example can be made.

So the movie's a police procedural, confusing -- Mariane needs a whiteboard to keep track of it all, and so do we -- and at times dizzyingly effective. The pulsing, unrelenting sprawl of Karachi is quickly revealed as the enemy. "How do you find one man in all this?" someone asks as the movie gathers chaos and strews it across the surface of the screen. Rarely is that surface penetrated in any meaningful dramatic or political way: Karachi closes its doors to the characters and to us.

The best scenes of "A Mighty Heart" follow the different investigative teams as they work together and at cross-purposes: The U S diplomatic crew under security officer Randall Bennett (Will Patton ), a cowboy jonesing for revenge, and Consul General John Bauman (William Hoyland ), weedy Wall Street Journal colleagues like Danny's boss John Bussey (Denis O'Hare ) and friend Steve LeVine (Gary Wilmes ), a steamroller of an FBI agent (Jillian Armenante ), and -- most compellingly -- a Pakistani state security chief known simply as "the Captain" (Irrfan Khan , the father in "The Namesake ").

The Captain is efficient, capable, and he knows Karachi. He's also not averse to torture if it gets him information, and, unlike the Americans on the scene, he doesn't pretend otherwise. In a movie full of blind, blundering, hopeful Westerners, he becomes the one man the audience trusts, even as we suspect we might detest him.

I almost wish "A Mighty Heart" were about the Captain, and I'd bet director Michael Winterbottom does, too. The character contains all the contradictory impulses of this region of the world that the West tries and miserably fails to boil down to black and white. Winterbottom has sifted these complexities before, in the brilliant "In This World " (2002) and last year's fine, provocative sort-of documentary "The Road to Guantanamo, " but he's playing with Hollywood toys this time, and they knock him off his stride.

To Jolie's credit as an actress -- she is an actress, you know, and not a bad one when a movie's not obsessing over her lips -- you mostly forget that's a tabloid queen up there. Handpicked by the Afro-Cuban-Dutch Pearl to play the role, Jolie wears brown contacts and frizzes her hair, and adopts a busy accent. Fans of actresses of color playing women of color will not be convinced, but the performance is smart and headstrong, interesting for being so interior. As the other characters explode outward in the search for Daniel (played gently and mostly in flashback by Dan Futterman ), Mariane grows increasingly still, hoping grief won't find her.

It does, of course. The problem with structuring "A Mighty Heart" as a suspense film is obvious: We already know the outcome. The video of Daniel Pearl's beheading looms large in our cultural psyche, even for those who haven't seen it (the movie doesn't show the video, although characters are seen reacting to it).

That knowledge robs "A Mighty Heart" of the urgency it needs, even a larger purpose. Why was this film made? To memorialize Daniel Pearl? He's barely onscreen. To lionize his widow? To spotlight a human tragedy within a diplomatic tragedy within a global-political disaster? Or just to hint how easy it is for a rational, well-intentioned American professional to vanish forever down the rabbit hole of Third World hatred?

The last voice we hear on the soundtrack is the real Mariane Pearl's, dedicating the film to her son , Adam , born three months after his father's murder. "A Mighty Heart" may be, in the end, only that: a letter to a child. There are worse reasons to make a movie. Given the weighty, painful resonances of this subject, there are also better ones.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/ movies/blog.

'Related'

A Mighty Heart

Directed by: Michael Winterbottom

Written by: John Orloff , based on the book by Mariane Pearl

Starring: Angelina Jolie , Dan Futterman , Archie Panjabi , Denis O'Hare , Will Patton , Irrfan Khan

At: Embassy, Harvard Square, Boston Common, Fenway, and suburbs

Running time: 103 minutes

Rated: R (language)

In English, French, Urdu, and Arabic, with subtitles

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