A Winterbottom's tale

Michael Winterbottom is one of the most innovative directors working today, and, though not a household name in the U.S., many Americans are probably familiar with his films Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005) and the much-vaunted 24 Hour Party People (2002). Welcome to Sarajevo is perhaps his best-known work, as it is one of the rare instances where Winterbottom used major stars (Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei).

His latest film, however, has turned his tendency to avoid Hollywood starpower on its head: A Mighty Heart features tabloid queen (or victim, depending how you look at it) Angelina Jolie in the lead role of Mariane Pearl, journalist and and widow of Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl, who was abducted and beheaded by terrorists in Pakistan shortly after 9/11.

A Mighty Heart, which is based on Mariane Pearl’s memoir and co-stars Dan Futterman as Danny Pearl, documents the weeks after his kidnapping when his six-months-pregnant wife had to contend with the prospect of losing her beloved husband before giving birth to their child, and also the growing international crisis that became a media circus. A Mighty Heart is about terror, and one woman’s refusal to succumb to it and pass hate on to her child.

Jolie, who had only recently given birth when filming began, plays the part of the mother with quiet dignity, intelligence, and courage. However, no matter how powerful her performance, there’s no denying the baggage her reputation brings to any endeavor she undertakes. Winterbottom, who was a director-for-hire on the project (a rarity, as the filmmaker generally develops projects from scratch through Revolution Films) hesitates only a beat, though, when asked if he would have cast her, considering said baggage, had the decision been his to make.

“For us, we were being offered a film,” he says. “It was already financed. Angelina was already involved.” (Heart is produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment.)

And Winterbottom came to see Jolie as the right person for the job: “When I met Angelina, Mariane was there and, meeting them together, I thought they were very like each other,” Winterbottom says.

“Mariane obviously trusted Angelina. They talked about Mariane’s experience, they talked about the story — but also they just talked about their own experience in the world as women and mothers, their children, what they’re trying to accomplish with their lives. They just seemed very similar, so I thought it was perfect casting for such a personal story.”

This personal story resonated with Winterbottom as a director in part because of how well it works alongside his previous movie, The Road to Guantanamo, a hybrid of documentary and narrative feature that explored the true story of  British citizens of Pakistani ancestry who were wrongly imprisoned as enemy combatants at Gitmo.

“They’re pictures about the aftermath of 9/11, of people who get caught in the extremes of both sides after 9/11,” Winterbottom explains.

However, he’s quick to insist that filmmaking is not his form of political protest despite how political so many of his movies are. “`I don’t make movies` to change the world, no. But, as a person, I’m engaged by these stories, so you want to make films that engage in some way with those important issues and their relationship to individuals. But you have to find the individual story. I’ve never thought, I have to make a movie about a theme. I’m more interested in stories connected to issues.”

Despite this poignant commonality, Heart — a fairly traditional narrative — marks a change in style for Winterbottom, who is renowned for his guerilla style of filmmaking, for allowing his actors to improv most of their performances, and the strong documentary slant of his often heady, meta-fictional narratives.

“I’m not drawn to that linear, traditional, well-told story that gives you only one perspective on it, that have that beginning, middle, and end; the characters go on a journey, they have their crisis, and they learn from it,” Winterbottom says. “That kind of thing I don’t find I’m very comfortable with. I prefer to do anything I can to get away from that ‘I’m telling you this story and this is the meaning of the story.’”

Ironically, though, A Mighty Heart always had a discernable meaning inherent in the material. Less ironic is how well Winterbottom unconventionally builds that meaning, avoiding any sense of melodrama while presenting it. 

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