Talking Movies

September 27, 2019

From the Archives: A Mighty Heart

Digging in the pre-Talking Movies archives uncovers Angelina Jolie’s Oscar-bait in which the show was stolen by the supporting players.

Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl is kidnapped by terrorists in Pakistan. Through the eyes of his pregnant wife Marianne we follow the frantic search operation to find him.

A Mighty Heart is based on a true story. Daniel Pearl was captured by Islamist extremists in Pakistan in early 2002 and held as a captive before being beheaded, an act of depravity videoed for posterity by his captors. Michael Winterbottom adapts the style of Paul Greengrass, the shaky hand-held camera and documentary feel, to recreate a sense of urgency given that we all know how the story ends. He is helped by an extremely impressive sound design which lets the chaotic roar of Karachi envelop the audience placing us in the midst of a strange city, with many rules for the safety for Western journalists. The most important rule is to always meet a contact in a public place. We see Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman) being told this repeatedly before meeting his contact. When the contact doesn’t appear, Pearl leaves, only to be abducted and used as a bargaining chip to get Guantanamo Bay shut down.

The ensemble of this film is very strong. There are standout performances though from Futterman who convinces us of Pearl’s quiet integrity and courage, Archie Panjabi as the pugnacious Indian Wall Street Journal reporter with whom the Pearls are staying, and Irrfan Khan as the Captain in charge of Counter-terrorism (Pakistan’s Jack Bauer, even down to torturing suspects). In its dogged reconstruction of the intelligence operation tracking down Islamist suspects this film comes close in feel to last year’s acclaimed mini-series The Path to 9/11. While that featured Harvey Keitel’s best performance in years as the doomed FBI agent John O’Neill the responsibility of playing a real person has the opposite effect on the lead of this film.

Angelina Jolie as Marianne Pearl gives a performance designed to win Oscars but that intention is so obvious it backfires. All you can think about is what a ‘performance’ Angelina is giving: look at her curled hair, her darkened pigmentation, her French accent…if she ‘acts’ any harder she might pull something. She’s at her best here in her quiet moments as shouting scenes play like a reprise of the showiness that won her an Oscar for her sociopath in Girl, Interrupted. John Wayne took a number of years to create the persona of ‘John Wayne’ that he perfected in Stagecoach and lived off for the next three decades. Angelina Jolie though has not created a film persona like Wayne’s, she has created a purely public persona that cannot be captured on celluloid. Her sole smash hit of the last decade was Mr & Mrs Smith. Centred on a tempestuous relationship with Brad Pitt this was a heightened expression of the comic book which is her life. The baggage of tabloid headlines she brings to this film fatally undermines it. Marianne Pearl should have been played by a lower profile actress…

2/5

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September 21, 2019

From the Archives: 3:10 to Yuma

Another ransacking of the pre-Talking Movies archives uncovers director James Mangold’s first collaboration with Christian Bale just as their second revs its engines for release.

Notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Crowe) is separated from his gang and captured by Civil War veteran and struggling rancher Dan Evans (Bale) who then volunteers to put Wade on the 3:10 train to Yuma prison for $200. As Evans fights off the attacks of Wade’s pursuing gang a strange kinship forms between the two men.

If you didn’t know that James Mangold was the writer/director responsible for Copland, Girl Interrupted, Identity and Walk the Line you should remember his name after 3:10 to Yuma, as by remaking a classic western he has delivered one of the best films of 2007. Mangold has always drawn terrific performances from his casts and it is vital to note the absolutely top notch characterisation, down to the tiniest supporting roles, that distinguishes this film. Every person who steps across the screen convinces as a character with a rich history of their own. This is a western that combines the gritty realistic action of the recent Brosnan/ Neeson vehicle Seraphim Falls with the deeply satisfying human drama of Walk the Line. The fraught relationship between drought-stricken rancher Daniel Evans and his resentful teenage son William (Logan Lerman) drives the film every bit as much as the relationship between Daniel Evans and Ben Wade.

The casting of Russell Crowe in the role originally played by Glenn Ford was always going to be interesting. Russell Crowe can’t do outright charm (see A Good Year) in the way that old-school leading men like Glenn Ford could. Ford’s villain was almost indistinguishable from his usual shtick when playing heroes which was contrasted ironically with Van Heflin’s unheroic rancher. Russell Crowe can add charm to noble heroes like General Maximus and Captain Jack Aubrey and here he adds charm to the principled villainy of Ben Wade. William Evans insists Wade won’t let his gang kill his captors “Cos you’re not all bad”, “Yes, I am” replies Wade. This Wade is tougher but his introduction (sketching a falcon while his men attack a stagecoach) proves he’s lying, he does have a soft side. The celebrated flirtatious conversation with a barmaid that leads to Wade being caught is truncated and Wade kills people in this version but Crowe makes us root for him enough to still complicate the straight good/evil division.

Christian Bale is given a peg-leg to assure us Batman ain’t no hero here but doesn’t need that prop, the hurt in his eyes at his son’s wounding remarks show us a man deeply aware of his unheroic status. Mangold’s film improves on the original with pace and suspense and also has some wonderful moments of humour. X-3’s Ben Foster as Wade’s psychotic lieutenant Charlie Prince is a terrifying presence who Mangold skilfully uses to create dread and heighten anxiety for Evans’ fate. The thus inevitable blood-soaked finale is a violent departure from the charming ending of the original but it is necessary and pushes the film close to mythic Sergio Leone territory.

5/5

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