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A widow's walk with terror Angelina Jolie gives a moving portrayal of Mariane Pearl, whose husband Daniel, a reporter, was murdered by Islamic militants

Thank heaven for movie stars.

Among the more foolish but common delusions that people live with is that the very idea of stardom, all by itself, is antithetical to everything that has ever been good about art.

Take a good look at "A Mighty Heart" and you'll know instantly that's the equivalent of thinking the earth is flat and the moon is made of gorgonzola.

It's unlikely the movie would exist at all without its Third World-trotting star Angelina Jolie and her consort Brad Pitt, whose company made it. And without Jolie's profoundly moving and wholly convincing performance as Mariane Pearl, the French widow of kidnapped and murdered Wall Street journal reporter Daniel Pearl, the movie would be so intellectually complex and dense with fact, that it would have no emotional center.

It is Jolie and Jolie alone that gives the movie its pull at your heart and its echo in your memory.

Director Michael Winterbottom ("Jude," "Welcome to Sarajevo," "24 Hour Party People") is more than capable of giving us a brilliant portrait of the fears and confusions of journalism in a terror-filled Third World hot spot. But it's Jolie in the center of his film that makes it the most consequential film he's ever made by far.

Jolie is variously known in fanworld as the hottest babe in movies and half of Brangelina, the tabloid's hottest couple (when your romance begins on a movie set, your entire life thereafter becomes public property, whether you like it or not). All that really matters is that she's an absolutely superb actress, from the apparent flawlessness of her French accent to general avoidance of emotional excess in favor of a journalist's curiosity and faith in enlarging a mosaic of facts.

When the awful revelation of Danny Pearl's fate comes, the movie gives her a primal scream alone -- and largely off camera.

It's based on Mariane Pearl's intimate book about the agonizing ordeal that the rest of the world watched on front pages and on 24-hour cable news reports. We already know what happened -- and the terribly melancholy result.

She was pregnant when her husband, Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl, was kidnapped. His death, five weeks later, was revealed when his beheading was shown on television. The finale of the movie reveals grisly details about his fate that might not be generally known to those of us who followed it in the news.

This is an exceptionally fine movie -- from the teeming pseudo-documentary feel (many hand-held cameras) to the investigative details of Pearl's colleagues and police trying to thread their way through the maze of Pearl's professional life to find out where he might be.

It seems that Pearl (played by Dan Futterman of "Judging Amy") didn't "advertise" being Jewish but he'd never deny it either when asked in a Muslim country, even by someone who'd just declared that 9/1 1 was really an evil Jewish plot.

When Pearl went missing, according to the film, he was trying to interview a mysterious sheik with terrorist connections (to Richard Reid, the "shoe bomber" for instance -- the man responsible for the entire world removing its shoes at airports).

Winterbottom is not the kind of director to italicize the routine courage required to do such dogged journalistic digging in a foreign country, but neither is he one to ignore the transient fears of an American journalist riding in a taxi God-knows-where in a teeming Muslim city.

Pearl had been repeatedly warned by people to meet the sheik in some accessible public place, but when he made his arrangements (through people who know people who know people), he had to wind up putting faith in his intermediaries.

And that's where everything went wrong.

What we see with documentary pseudo-punctiliousness is the descent of police, embassy minions and Wall Street Journal colleagues on Mariane and Danny Pearl's house and the frustrating step-by-step investigation.

What I admire so much about "A Mighty Heart" is its utter refusal to go for easy sentiment. There is, quite frankly, a lot of ugly American behavior glimpsed on the fly in the movie. When, for instance, the Pearls' house becomes investigation central, we learn casually that all of their neighbors' phone lines, from now on, would go through the Pearls' house.

The ever-sinister Will Patton plays an American official who, at one point when torture looms, smiles insanely and says, "I love this town."

What can't be ignored about Brangelina, the tabloid darlings who attract paparazzi like flies to sugar, is that they have put their concerns with the world right into the middle of their films. The same impulse that, no doubt, led Pitt to make "Babel," led Pitt and Jolie to make "A Mighty Heart."

The result is a film that's gripping, dramatic and moving on top of that.

Make no mistake. We're seeing a new kind of American movie star in their generation -- the next step after the Newman/Redford/Nicholson/Jane Fonda generation. They're giving us a kind of internationalist filmmaking we've never quite seen before, except transiently and not very consequentially from Marlon Brando.

I don't know about you but I think these star/idealists are impressive people.

And, for all the ridiculous glam-besotted noise that surrounds them, good people, too.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com.

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>Movie Review

A MIGHTY HEART

Review: 3 1/2 stars (out of four)
Angelina Jolie, Dan Futterman and Will Patton in Michael Winterbottom's film about the kidnap and murder of Wall Street journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan. Rated PG-13, opening tomorrow in area theaters.

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