Six years after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Hollywood has begun to gear up to critical approaches to the War on Terror. In the last couple of years we’ve had the sentimental looks at the attacks themselves in World Trade Center and United 93; now A Mighty Heart takes us into the aftermath, and the impact of America’s swift response. Over the next 12 months will come a glut of films looking at life in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the machinations behind the scenes in the world’s latest war.
BAFTA Award-winning British director Michael Winterbottom increasingly seems to crave controversy. This latest outing – made even more high profile thanks to the presence of megastar Angelina Jolie in the lead – also seems to indicate that, having done explicit sex with 9 Songs and asylum seekers with In This World, he’s now setting himself up as the chronicler of the devastating impact that the War on Terror is having on ordinary people, accidentally caught up in it all.
In fact, it looks rather as if Winterbottom is going for what may well end up being dubbed his War on Terror trilogy. Last year he brought us his account of the British internees at Camp X-Ray in Road to Guantanamo, next year will come his adaptation of the memoirs of the former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, who was sacked for highlighting human rights abuses performed for the benefit of British and American intelligence agencies. The middle film of the three is this harrowing account of the kidnapping of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, whose beheading was videotaped back in 2002 and released onto the internet.
Casting Angelina Jolie as Pearl’s widow, upon whose memoirs the film is based, may seem an odd choice at first – not in terms of getting free publicity, obviously, but in terms of artistic credibility. In the last few years she’s appeared in few films of any lasting note, and more than a few abject duds – from Oliver Stone’s ill-fated Alexander to a bit part in the disappointing Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. And that’s before you even mention the dire Tomb Raider movies, or note that her fame these days seems to stem almost entirely from her looks and tabloid appeal. It would be easy to mistake her for the Posh Spice of Hollywood – photographs well, but famous more for the far more talented man on her arm than for any real abilities.
This, of course, would be a vast injustice to Jolie. She is far, far more than just a pretty face – although it may have been eight years ago, she is a Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner, after all. It’s just that, well, she hasn’t bothered to take any parts in which acting was really required during the last few years, that’s all.
Largely because of this sudden shift back to “proper” acting in a serious film for the female half of the newspapers’ favourite couple, there’s a fair amount of Oscar buzz around Jolie’s performance. Powerful it certainly is, and with Winterbottom seemingly back on form after his 9 Songs lapse of judgement, the film is more than smart enough to hold it up. The only question left is whether a film with a plot as depressing as a woman’s quest to uncover the story behind her husband’s brutal execution is going to hold any box office appeal.