Though it screened out of competition at this year's Cannes Film Festival, A Mighty Heart collected enough plaudits at press and public screenings to make it a winner in its own right. The prolific Michael Winterbottom continues in the vein of wrenching docudrama that he has previously mined in The Road to Guantanamo and In This World. Heart, however, rachets up the poignancy; closely hugging the memoir by Mariane Pearl, the story carries a high recognition factor.

And it centers on a woman of striking fortitude and decency, who was six months pregnant at the time her husband, Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl, went missing in Pakistan--a woman who has since publicly opted for dialogue over anger and hate. And yes, I can report that Winterbottom has coaxed from Angelina Jolie as Mariane a restraint that serves the film well.

The action centers almost entirely on the frantic hunt for Danny Pearl through a teeming Karachi, after he disappears following a meeting with a source supposed to provide information on shoe bomber Richard Reid. The night her husband fails to return home, Mariane keeps vigil with a female colleague of Danny's at the WSJ, in the woman's house in Karachi. By dawn, the two women, both seasoned journos, recognize they're facing a crisis requiring Pakistani counterterrorism experts and American diplomats, as well as the FBI. In the midst of a media frenzy, the kidnappers are exposed--and then comes the devastating news that Danny was brutally murdered by jihadists weeks earlier.

Despite the known outcome, Winterbottom revs up the suspense by cutting back and forth between Mariane and her allies, struggling to reconstruct Danny's steps on the fateful afternoon, and scenes of Karachi, shot in long single takes by the brilliant Marcel Zyskind with a hand-held DV camera. Though Pakistan must have proven a challenging environment, the filmmakers managed to shoot in the real locations that Pearl went to (including an ominous-looking Village Restaurant), which enhance the film's authenticity. (In the street scenes, Winterbottom apparently never called "Action," instead gripping the back of Zyskind's shirt to steer him.) That Jolie and the other actors were encouraged to improvise from the written script brings a heat-of-the-moment immediacy to the race to locate Pearl. Flashbacks to happier moments shared by Mariane and Danny offer relief from the ongoing ordeal.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the viewer is sometimes taxed by the plethora of names, aliases and organizations involved in Pearl's abduction. (Helpful titles provide timelines and locations.) Those willing to stay with this often demanding film, though, will find an unusually balanced view that celebrates not only Mariane's courage, but the Pakistanis who fought valiantly on her behalf. As Danny, Dan Futterman (the screenwriter of Capote) superbly captures a committed journalist, and Indian actor Irfan Khan (The Namesake) shines as a cop called, simply, Captain.

Which leaves us with La Jolie. Mirroring Mariane not only through a curly wig and French-y accent, Jolie herself was pregnant at the time of filming. Some critics in Cannes argued that her notoriety gets in the way of the character portrayed. And because overexposed, perhaps, the tabloid-ready face and lips actually start to pall by the third act. I find Jolie weakest when she attempts acting with a capital A (as when she finally explodes in grief), and strongest when conveying Mariane's toughness, her will to hope against hope. Overall, when two Hollywood icons (Brad Pitt co-produced) embrace a film of such high seriousness, it's reason enough to rejoice.