Mighty Hearts and Dark Deeds

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Paramount Classics

Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart.

A stately, sexy movie star will walk up the red-carpeted steps of the Cannes Palace this evening, when Angelina Jolie graces the official world premiere screening of A Mighty Heart. Her partner will be here too; Brad Pitt is one of the film's producers.

The film, directed by Michael Winterbottom, dramatizes the relationship of two journalists: Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman) and his Franco-Cuban wife Mariane (Jolie), a freelancer for French TV, who's five months pregnant with a child Danny wants to call Adam. While researching a story on the shoe-bomber Richard Reid, Danny was abducted by Islamic radicals. Five anguished weeks later, Mariane learned that he had been brutally slaughtered. The film is based on Mariane's memoir, A Mighty Heart: The Brave Life and Death of My Husband Danny Pearl, which she wrote to explain her husband to her infant son. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

Winterbottom is a past master at lending the traditional story-telling format to real stories of the modern world at war. Welcome to Sarajevo, In This World and The Road to Guantanamo all mixed documentary footage with either fictional scenes played by professional actors or reenactments by the actual participants. A Mighty Heart is a more straightforward docudrama, following the horrific tick-tock of Mariane's ordeal. As played by Jolie, she is a demanding, nails-tough woman, while Futterman's Danny is more easy-going but no less tenacious at his job — a good reporter, and a mensch.

There's inherent drama in the coiling of tension as Mariane and a host of Pakistani and American officials track down clues about those involved in leading Danny into the hands of his murderers. This is essentially a police procedural, an accretion of small, agonizing details, rather like the recent Zodiac, which opened in the U.S. in March and is being shown in competition here. And since anyone interested in seeing A Mighty Heart is likely to know the awful outcome, the film also has an inherent lack of drama, despite Jolie's commitment to the project and her occasionally volcanic histrionics. The interest, such as there is, comes from seeing how the authorities manage to elicit the evidence (sometimes by torture), and how so many Pakistanis are implicated in the crime, at least by their sympathy with the jihadists.

The true impact of the film is outside it. Journalists are imperiled as never before; the number of reporters killed in action has reached dreadful heights, as the war zone is expanded from the old-time battlefields to nearly any location where a newsman and an Islamo-fascist might collide. (The BBC's Alan Johnson, missing for seven weeks, is only the latest kidnap victim of Muslim extremists.) Killing the messenger has become a major mission, a prime sport, among the politically and religiously deranged.

We film critics call ourselves journalists, though we can't be killed for it; the only danger in our line of work is getting bored or disappointed as we watch a movie. But we can respond to the palpable threat to our better, braver colleagues — those determined to bring the most important stories to their readers and viewers. Their gift is precious; the price they pay for it may be their lives.

As worthy as A Mighty Heart is, it can't compete as riveting drama with Terror's Advocate, the Barbet Schroeder documentary also showing in Cannes. Like Winterbottom, but long before him, Schroeder has compiled an imposing resume of fiction films (Barfly, Reversal of Fortune, Single White Female, Murder by Numbers) and documentaries (General Idi Amin Dada and Koko, a Talking Gorilla). His new non-fiction study is a biography of Jacques Vergès, a lawyer who defended some of the most infamous activists of the 20th century, from the terrorist Carlos the Jackal to the Nazi executioner Klaus Barbie.

Born in Thailand, Vergès fought in the French Resistance before becoming a lawyer, defending Communist students who protested the departure of French soldiers to the Algierian war. In Algeria he took up the case of Djamila Bohired, the anti-colonial bomber of cafés. After he won her freedom, they married and had two children. He then vanished for eight years, returning to become the lawyer of choice for terrorists — or freedom fighters? — from Europe and the Middle East. ("Today's Palestinian," he says, "is yesterday's Algerian.") Some of these participants speak fondly onscreen of their advocate and their mutual ideology. Asked if he would defend Hitler, Vergès replies, "I would even defend Bush! Of course, first he'd have to admit his guilt."

Part of the film's fascination, at least to those unfamiliar with Vergès, is its novelty; the story is fresh, epic, and challenging to all preconceptions about the use of violence for political purposes. To what extent, Schroeder asks, do individuals practice terrorism and countries practice military diplomacy, when both actions end in the deaths of dozens, or millions, of innocents? The filmmaker has no easy answers; no answers at all; and that moral dilemma hangs over the viewer of Terror's Advocate long after the specific horrors of A Mighty Heart will have receded into the mists of docudrama.

—By R.C. and M.C.

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